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"Sitting there in the front row and watching those guys being honored, seeing the trophy, it made me want to get the opportunity to win," said 34-year-old Vince Carter, an eight-time All-Star who is averaging 8.6 points in his first month with the champions. "It's a wonderful feeling to have an opportunity to play on this team. You want to seize the moment and put a lot of work in to make sure when I step on the floor I'm doing what needs to be done for this team. I need to learn the plays and be aggressive on both ends. That's what I need to do."
Among recent championship teams, the Mavericks are, as ever, unique. After upsetting Miami in the Finals with defense, teamwork and the finishing of Dirk Nowitzki, they launched their title defense last month with a relatively new rotation. You don't usually see championship teams replace nearly a half-dozen members, including five who contributed to the postseason run.
But owner Mark Cuban wasn't dwelling on the past when he took account of the luxury-tax rules that came with the new collective bargaining agreement. He created cap space for next summer by pulling together a roster of single-year contracts.
"You've got eight guys in here," Jason Terry said of the Mavericks' expiring deals. "I'm one of them. All we can do is together, collectively, make this group special."
So now the Mavs can't afford to spend this season celebrating or relaxing. They feel pressure to win again while they can, because this may be their final chance together. Terry is providing a crucial example of how to turn the uncertainty into a team-minded strength.
"I know where I'd love to be, but it hasn't happened now so who's to say it will," said the 34-year-old, who has been a Maverick for eight years. "I've got to approach this like every day in a Maverick uniform is my last."
It's no coincidence that their championship hangover has been relatively short. After stumbling and pratfalling to a 35-point deficit in their Christmas Day rematch with Miami, which contributed to a humbling 3-5 start overall, the Mavs won their third game in a row -- all without point guard Jason Kidd, sidelined by a bad back -- by outworking the Celtics 90-85 here Wednesday. They clobbered Boston for 12 offensive rebounds and a 17-0 advantage in second-chance points, even though the Mavs had won the prior evening in Detroit while the Celtics hadn't played since Friday.
"That's 37 points before you start the game against the team that won the title last year," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after adding up the 20 points Dallas created from 17 Boston turnovers.
There are signs of optimism for a team that might have been demoralized by the departures of Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, who were crucial to the Mavs' winning four of their final five games last year.
"The team's finding itself a little bit," said coach Rick Carlisle, whose ejection snapped his players awake early in the second half after he ran onto the court to complain about Kevin Garnett's defense against Nowitzki. "It's all about how we compete. We're building some consistency with our competitiveness. We're getting a little more familiarity with our new guys."
Delonte West has filled in for Kidd by running the offense and leading the defense. After Nowitzki broke the tie on a clinching three-point drive, he walked back onto the court to hug West for his contributions. This was one of those early-season victories that both teams needed badly, and the difference between Dallas and Boston was spelled out on a Terry drive that gave his team a five-point lead with 2:42 remaining. Sprung by a screen from backup center Ian Mahinmi -- who has averaged 20 minutes per game this season after yielding a minimal 8.7 minutes in 56 games last year -- Terry found himself in the abandoned lane with no Celtic arriving to foul him. He looked over his shoulder as if surprised to find no one challenging him. It is the kind of breakdown that the Mavericks are urgently seeking to avoid.
"We know what last year's team did," said Terry. "What is this team going to do? We talk about it every day. When we started out, we talked a little bit too much about last year, trying to emulate what they did. No -- carve out your own niche, make your own identity. And that's what's been going on the last week and a half."
It wasn't entirely bad to focus on last year, if only to reinforce standards for the newcomers. Carter, Lamar Odom and Rodrigue Beaubois (who was injured for most of last season) don't want to be the reason why Nowitzki, Terry, Kidd and Shawn Marion fail to repeat this year.
"We stayed in plays, we outhustled them," Terry said of this win against the Celtics, "and that's what it's going to take. I'm the most optimistic guy in the room, but a game like this -- you're going to look back at the end of the season, you say this was a turning point, it was something you can build on. We're starting to figure out our identity."
It's not about last year or next year: That's how a championship is won.