Britt Robson
Tuesday November 10th, 2009

In some ways, last Saturday's game seemed like the vintage days of yore for the Mavericks, the days of Nash and Nellie and lots of offense. With swingman Josh Howard back from injury and appearing for the first time this season, a Mavs team that had uncharacteristically ranked in the bottom half of the league in most offensive categories was flying around the court, slinging the ball from the post to the perimeter and wing to wing while racing up and down the floor en route to 62.4 percent shooting and a 129-101 thrashing of the Raptors.

An important difference, however, between this year's edition and the team's run-and-gun heritage is the presence of Shawn Marion. Added to the Mavs' trio of scorers (Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Howard) and their premier distributor (Jason Kidd), Marion's athleticism and versatility enable Dallas to match up with most any team in the league -- including the Raptors and their tall, sharpshooting front line of Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu. Alternating a big lineup that included Erick Dampier and had Marion posting up Turkoglu with a smaller unit that featured reigning Sixth Man Award winner Jason Terry spreading the floor too wide for the Raptors' big men to cover, Dallas hung a minimum of minus-20 on all three Toronto frontcourt starters.

But the biggest difference so far this season is Dallas' decision to make the kind of defensive commitment that gets teams past the first round of the playoffs -- and, unlike the productive but turbulent tenure of former coach Avery Johnson, the players seem enthusiastic about embracing the defensive-oriented approach of Rick Carlisle. It's very early yet, but the Mavs are serving notice that even if Gregg Popovich repeats his typical pattern and has the Spurs in peak form by January or February, the Southwest Division will be a toss-up in Texas (with Rick Adelman's overachieving Rockets trying to make it a three-way intrastate race).

Terry traces the team's new attitude to the start of the preseason, when strength and conditioning coach Robert Hackett began doling out 50- and 100-yard increments of "the lurch walk" and the "defensive slide," which requires that the trunk stays low so the legs and torso are able to sustain constant pivots in any direction.

"It's helped all of us to move our feet quicker and stay down," Terry said. "As a shooter, I practice repetition, and this is the same thing; it gives us defensive muscle memory. Has it translated into wins? So far it has."

Indeed, the Mavs won three of their first five -- including a road victory against the otherwise unbeaten Lakers -- despite the absence of Howard and the team's shooting at only 43 percent. They now rank seventh in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), up from 17th a year ago.

"Will it continue? I believe it will. It has to," Terry said. "We've been praised for our offensive skills, but it has gotten us losses in the playoffs. We know the window is closing and it's time to make the most of all the talent we have here."

That was the point Carlisle kept emphasizing as he prepared for his second season in Dallas. He told his team it was 10-27 when shooting less than 45 percent last season (and therefore 40-5 when making at least 45 percent), which is too much pressure on the offense for a legitimate title contender. He pointed out that the difference between a top 20 NBA defense and a top 10 unit is little more than one point per 100 possessions.

"So that's our motto now -- just one more extra stop per game," Terry said. "We're more excited if we get two or three stops in a row than if we get two or three baskets in a row."

It's also significant that Terry, an 11-year veteran renowned for his clutch shooting, has both been highly vocal about the need for better defense in Dallas and is lurch walking his talk.

"Last year, coach challenged me to come off the bench as sixth man and I met it head on," Terry said. "This year, he told me he had faith in me becoming a consistent defender and I've taken that challenge."

Said Carlisle: "As coaches, we made defense more of an emphasis from training camp going forward, and we've acquired better defensive players compared to last year," including Marion and guard Quinton Ross. "But mostly [the defensive improvement] has come from us trying to ingrain it into our personality. And that tone has really been set by Jason Terry. When he had a little lull late in our exhibition season and early in the regular season, our team took a major step down, so he's been a key guy for our defense."

Marion has played a big role, too.

"Shawn on our team means better defensive communication and accountability. Plus, he's a walking double-double," Terry said. "He's an active wing player who can defend multiple positions, something we haven't really had since Marquis Daniels and Adrian Griffin the year we played for the championship [in 2006]."

The Mavs have also been posting up Marion when he's matched against other small forwards.

"That's an adjustment we asked him to make to expand his game," Carlisle said.

It's also a wrinkle that should effectively short-circuit any complaints by Marion about touches and play calls. But Carlisle sees the topic of ball-sharing as another chance to promote the team's personality makeover toward defense.

"When we defend well, everybody gets involved [on offense] because we've always been such a good transition team," he said.

Then there is Howard, who has had his share of controversies and injuries over the years, and is facing an $11 million team option for next season.

"Josh completes our team on multiple levels," Carlisle said. "He gives us that second or third scorer, and another attacking athletic presence both offensively and defensively."

Such is the talent on this team that we haven't even talked about Nowitzki, the former MVP who set a franchise record with 29 fourth-quarter points in a victory against Utah last week, or Kidd, a future Hall of Famer and the dean of NBA point guards.

But for all their virtues, Kidd and Nowitzki will have to demonstrate the will and the stamina to continue buying into the new emphasis on defense. As the saying goes, team defense is only as good as your weakest link. But Kidd is aging -- he's played more regular-season minutes than any active player -- and Nowitzki, while improved over the years, has never been regarded as a quality defender.

Fewer minutes for both will enhance their effectiveness at both ends of the court. That hasn't really happened yet -- Nowitzki is above his career average in playing time and Kidd is logging just one fewer minute per game than his career norm -- but the return of Howard and the eventual return of Drew Gooden (out briefly with a rib cage injury) should ease their strain.

"I like this team," Carlisle said. "I like the moves we made this summer. We need to keep improving daily -- this is the Western Conference -- but I think this team has a rejuvenated spirit."

• Sometimes even injuries to cornerstone players bring silver linings that provide an unexpected boost. Look no further than Sacramento, where the Kings have won two in a row since losing scoring machine Kevin Martin (30.6 points) for about two months with a wrist injury. Suddenly, first-round pick Tyreke Evans can showcase the full range of his combo-guard prowess, dominating the ball to the tune of 55 points and nine assists in victories at Utah and against Golden State.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, injuries to mainstays Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince have fast-forwarded the Pistons' small-ball blueprint, with Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum getting extensive minutes together in recent wins against Orlando and Philadelphia. In Chicago, losing power forward Tyrus Thomas -- already an uneasy presence because of his chronic underachievement and the fact that he didn't receive a contract extension last month, making him a restricted free agent after the season -- has enabled hard-working rookie Taj Gibson to bolster the team's blue-collar identity beside center Joakim Noah on the front line. And it is hard to see how the absence of Allen Iverson does anything but help Memphis by providing more minutes and touches for the likes of O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay.

• Hard-nosed, on-ball defense has fueled Miami's 5-1 start. Instead of gambling -- the Heat are only 23rd in the league in blocks and 24th in steals -- Miami locks down. The Heat lead the NBA in effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the extra value of three-pointers) in large part because they have held the opposition to just 25.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, easily the best in the league.

• Phoenix's 7-1 breakout is equally elementary: The Suns are killing it from outside, shooting 47.1 percent on three-pointers. Led by the Mutt and Jeff duo of Steve Nash and Channing Frye, Phoenix has hit 89 threes, 58 more than its opponents. That's more than a 21-point advantage per game from long range.

• Is this the year Atlanta forward Josh Smith finally grows up? The massively talented Smith scorched Denver for 22 points on only 10 shots Saturday, and further stuffed the stat sheet with nine rebounds, seven assists and six blocks. Smith, 23, is averaging nearly two assists more than his career average, while cutting his turnovers by 20 percent (helping the Hawks commit the league's third-fewest turnovers). His shooting percentage has skyrocketed to 57.3 from a career average of 45.6, largely because he's stopped taking silly three-pointers -- zero attempts this year.

• One way the Celtics are preventing opponents from leaving Rajon Rondo open and daring him to shoot is by stationing the point guard down near the basket in some half-court sets. When Boston eked out a two-point victory in Minnesota last week, Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis and rookie point guard Jonny Flynn both acknowledged that the rotations by their young defense were flummoxed by the move.

"You know where they got that from? The Spurs have done that with Tony Parker," a scout said. "I'm surprised more teams don't do it. It gives you a mismatch [on the perimeter] or prevents [the opposing] point guard from leading the break. But it's most effective when your big guys can shoot from outside and create spacing. That's another benefit of [the Celtics' signing Rasheed Wallace]."

• On the subject of point guards, my apologies to Philadelphia's Lou Williams, whom I've frequently criticized as an inadequate replacement for the departed Andre Miller. But in seven games, Williams has put up a team-high 34 assists against only eight turnovers. Throw in 11 steals and a 15-point scoring average, and even I have to concede Williams has been a pleasant surprise.

• There are many reasons why the Timberwolves are struggling mightily at 1-6, including Monday's 146-105 loss at Golden State. Kevin Love is hurt. The triangle offense takes time to grasp, let alone master. The core talent is woefully thin, especially in the frontcourt. Al Jefferson is clearly not fully recovered from last year's knee surgery. And their marquee free-agent signing, guard Ramon Sessions, hasn't developed any rhythm playing just 21 minutes per game backing up Flynn instead of playing alongside him in the backcourt. But it is also true that no other NBA team has so blatantly announced that it is in the early stages of a slow, careful rebuilding project. The pressure to rack up wins is practically nonexistent, and one gets the sense management would rather have more lottery balls anyway.

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