DALLAS -- Is it possible that the Dallas Mavericks actually enjoy playing defense, and even find themselves challenging one another to rise up when games get down and dirty in crunch time?
"I think it would be better to ask the players that question because we identify defense as the No. 1 variable to us being a true contending team," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "If the answer is yes, then we're making some real progress. If the answer is something else, then we've got to take a hard look at where we're at."
"But," Carlisle continued, "I think our guys realize that hard, consistent defense and staying with a system is the most important part of our success and it's the most important part of continuing the success that we're having."
Monday night was another example that the answer just might be a resounding, "Yes." The Mavs trailed the previously unbeaten New Orleans Hornets by 10 points with 7:44 left in the game. From that point, Dallas' defense, which entered the game ranked third in the league in points per possession, allowed eight points on 3-of-16 shooting and turned stops into a 3-point barrage at the other end to pull out a dramatic 98-95 victory.
The fourth quarter was reminiscent of one week ago against Boston. The Celtics seized momentum, led 80-74 with 7:25 to go and then scored seven points the rest of the way.
These aren't Don Nelson's Mavericks.
"Yeah, well, we understand what it takes," point guard Jason Kidd said. 'We've seen, come June, the team that holds that trophy is one of the best defensive teams, so at some point you've got to believe that playing defense will win you a championship. I think everybody's in agreement that we have to play defense. Again, six minutes left in the game, you've got to find a way to get stops."
Against New Orleans, Dallas found a way with a mix of tough man-to-man defense and zone to combat point guard Chris Paul, who was hounded by J.J. Barea and held without a point and just three assists in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs didn't force a turnover in the final quarter, but they frustrated the Hornets into 7-of-23 shooting (30.4 percent), and Dallas commanded the boards 15-7. It led to a free-flow offense and a treasure chest of open 3-pointers that, after a long night of firing long-range blanks, finally produced rainbows.
New Orleans (8-1) scored 19 points in the final 12 minutes, which is nothing unusual for Dallas opponents in the first nine games. The Mavericks (7-2) are stingiest in the fourth quarter, allowing on average of 19.7 points a game. They haven't surrendered more than 24 points in a fourth quarter and Monday notched their fifth sub-20-point final period.
"I love it," Barea said. "And with a guy like Tyson [Chandler], you get a stop and he starts screaming and going wild. It's awesome. And then we know when we get stops, hey, we're going to score on the other end fast. That's what we've got to do. If we get stops, we're going to be a great team."
But, that's the same line as every player used almost daily last year: Get stops and we win. Carlisle came to Dallas three years ago preaching defensive demeanor. It didn't stick. The Mavs opened last season 19-7 and talked of yet another recommitment to defense. After a 131-96 beatdown in Los Angeles by the Lakers on Jan. 3, the Mavs' defense might as well have been in Maui.
"I think we're starting to take pride in [defense] because that's the next step to being a championship-level team," said 7-foot tag-team center Brendan Haywood, who was acquired in a February trade. "Look at the teams that have won championships in the last couple of years. They've all been teams that at some point could play very good defense. Look at Boston, the Spurs, Detroit. That's not by accident. That's what has to happen. You have to be a good defensive team to win. That's something coach has stressed from the preseason until now and we're going to keep getting better defensively."
When Trevor Ariza knocked down a 3-pointer to tie it at 95-95 with 40.8 seconds left, Carlisle called timeout.
"We just said we've got to stop these guys," Terry said. "The team with the most stops was going to prevail in this game. New Orleans is the second-best defensive team in the league right now and we're No 3. So, defense definitely wins games."
Terry came out of the timeout and buried an 18-foot jumper for a 97-95 lead with 34.9 to go. Then a scrambling, trapping Mavs defense took over on a wild second-to-last possession for the Hornets. David West missed from short range and off the rebound Ariza missed two 3-pointers.
Dirk Nowitzki gave New Orleans one last chance after he missed the second free throw to make it a 98-95 lead with 0.7 seconds left. Emeka Okafor wound up with the ball and didn't come close with a last-gasp 3-pointer.
And through nine games, the Dallas Mavericks are buying into the concept of team defense.
"Haywood and Tyson help with that. Dirk is believing in it. Jet. J.J. Whoever is out on the floor," Kidd said. "We always feel we might not be quick or we might not be able to jump high, but just playing team defense is a big thing in this league and again, you look at San Antonio or Boston or L.A., they play great team defense.
"I think we're believing in that."