DALLAS -- The unsung hero of the Mavericks’ playoff run is an honest man.
Backup center Brendan Haywood admits he often didn’t justify his new contract during the regular season. Coach Rick Carlisle consistently and strongly disputes the notion that Haywood underachieved, but the 7-footer acknowledges it was a difficult process for him to adjust to a reserve role.
It’s not that Haywood pouted or moped about coming off the bench. He was promised a starting job when he signed the deal that guarantees him $42 million over five seasons, but that was as the roster was constructed at the time. He understood that the trade for Tyson Chandler, a more athletic, versatile big man, caused a change of plans.
"I'm a competitor, so I definitely wanted to play," Haywood said after an extended post-practice shooting session Saturday. "I wasn't upset with anybody in particular. I just wanted to play, and I wasn’t playing well. So I was upset at myself. I wasn't even making it a competition. So there was nothing to even argue about. I wasn't really upset. Everything just didn't go well."
A lot of things are going well for Haywood during the playoffs, as those who really watch the games instead of just look at the box scores know.
You can’t necessarily tell by his traditional numbers. His points (2.4), rebounds (5.1) and minutes (17.6) per game are all actually down a tick from the regular season. And his free-throw shooting has gone from awful to worse despite hours of extra work from the line. But there's good reason team president Donnie Nelson goes out of his way to call Haywood the "unsung hero" and praise the big man's performance banging patrolling the paint for an undersized second unit and taking turns banging with L.A.'s Andrew Bynum and Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge.
Opponents are averaging only 98.75 points per 100 possessions with Haywood on the floor during the playoffs. That's a little more than five points fewer than they're averaging with Chandler (103.81), who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting, in the game. It's also a drop of five points from the regular season when Haywood manned the middle.
By comparison, the Bulls and Celtics had the best defensive rating in the NBA during the regular season at 100.3 points per 100 possessions. Haywood, who is averaging 1.2 blocks, is playing a huge role in the Mavs adhering to the old adage of defense winning championships.
While he's not scoring much, Haywood's presence has allowed the Mavs' small-ball lineup to run on a regular basis. Dallas has an off-the-charts offensive rating of 116.51 with Haywood in the game. His has a positive 37 plus-minus in 157 playoff minutes.
"He's been incredible," Chandler said. "A lot of times, even for myself, stats don't show what a guy is out there doing for his team. I think Haywood has been huge for us. He's come in every game and been locked into our defensive assignments and rotations. He's been a big part of our success."
It's not as simple as Haywood just deciding to flip a switch and put forth maximum effort during the playoffs.
After being a starter for most of the last nine seasons, he had to adapt to a limited role off the bench. He learned the hard way that he had to provide instant energy instead of getting a feel for the game.
"You don't have time to wait," Haywood said. "If you've ever watched those first two minutes, [they] sometimes seem a little slow. You don't have that luxury, because if your first two minutes are slow, you might not get in the rest of the game."
Haywood struggled to be aggressive because he was uncertain about his role. He said he was hesitant too often because he wasn't playing instinctively. Wanting to prove he was worth the contract -- and knowing that he wasn’t doing so -- weighed on him.
The biggest mental hurdle for Haywood, however, was dealing with the occasional games in which he didn't even get a couple of minutes. Carlisle opted to use Ian Mahinmi instead of Haywood in a handful of games against teams that didn't have traditional centers.
"For a guy who has been used to starting and then getting DNP-ed against teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, that kind of hurts," Haywood said. "It's like, 'We didn't like the matchups.' And I'm like, 'Man, I can't guard J.J. Hickson and Ryan Hollins?' I might not need to play the next couple games then. So for me it was a little different.
"And I haven't played in Golden State this year. We didn't like the matchup. I can't guard Amundson? On the second unit? And it's funny to you, but that's what goes through your head. You start second guessing yourself. Why do they want me to guard Amare if they don't want me to guard Amundson? You start thinking too much.
"Everybody talks about swag. When your swag is up, you feel like, Yeah, I got everything going. I didn't have that. I was just in a tailspin."
That's history now for Haywood. He's settled into a role. He's playing with confidence. And the Mavs couldn't be happier with their highly paid backup big man's performance in the playoffs.