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
An important difference, however, between this year's edition and the team's run-and-gun heritage is the presence of
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
Terry traces the team's new attitude to the start of the preseason, when strength and conditioning coach
"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
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
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
"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."
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