Stumbling Mavs look to regain footing

DALLAS -- The end of Monday's Dallas Mavericks practice, the part the media is granted access to, looked and sounded the same as any other practice on any other day.

Players shot free throws and jumpers on the six hoops hanging from the rafters of the team's practice facility in the basement of the American Airlines Center. They smiled, laughed and goofed on one another.

Panic? No, this veteran team won't go there, at least no more than Jason Terry briefly slipping off the wagon after Thursday's and Friday's losses before getting back on board with a brighter outlook after Saturday's third consecutive loss.

Still, make no mistake. Monday's return to the job was not just any other practice on any other day. Monday served as the first day of the rest of the season.

With 23 games left, it is up to this version of the Dallas Mavericks -- one lacking key leadership from the title team, one with key pieces knowing they are not in the organization's long-term plans and one that has bowed to five teams at the bottom of the NBA standings in the past 14 days -- to decide which way this thing goes from here.

"Losing is never fun. I don't care if you lose two in a row or three or 10. It's tough to go through," Dirk Nowitzki said. "There's some frustrations going on the coach's side, on the players' side, there's stuff being said. You just have to fight through those things. I think we have a veteran team and obviously a lot of those guys have been through battles and been through tough stretches in their careers, and this is definitely one of them.

"We've got to respond right away. We feel like if we set the tone early in games and have a good first quarter it usually carries through the rest of the game."

The scheduling gods, so unkind to the Mavs with that gruesome stretch of nine games in 12 days, has reciprocated with the ultimate antidote. The league's two worst teams come to the American Airlines Center over the next three nights. The Washington Wizards on Tuesday night precede the Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday, teams that have combined for a total of 15 wins, and just six road wins.

But Tuesday's start of a three-game homestand is not about the opposition, good or bad. It is all about the Mavs and their energy and urgency and determination and desire.

"I'm not worried," Nowitzki said.

Play as carelessly and as casually as they did when New Jersey strolled into town, and the lid on this thing just might blow. Commit to a return to top-five defense and regain confidence and composure in crunch time, and this team will quickly more resemble the squad that entered the All-Star break on a 7-2 run and not the one that came out of it 2-7.

"We have to understand as bad as it can get you're never that close from being back on track. But we have to make that happen, it doesn't happen on its own," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We have to tighten things up and we've got to be better. We have to be more efficient. We have to defend a little bit better and our energy's got to be up, and I think it will be."

It can't get much lower than what was witnessed out west. Carlisle called for leadership to come from the team's "best players and the coach. And we will all do that."

"It's really on all of us," Nowitzki said. "We've got a big week here for us where we can make some noise, hopefully, and win some games and get some confidence back, get a little mojo back. So, [it's] a big game for us tomorrow."

Two days off should help recharge weary bodies. The probable return of Brendan Haywood and Brandan Wright should also help. Delonte West's eventual return will also provide a jolt.

But with 23 games left -- including a monster, mettle-testing dozen starting Saturday against the Spurs -- this team's chemistry, its age and its urgency are now clearly on the clock. As the Mavs became fond of saying last season and is carved into their championship rings as an everlasting reminder: The time is now.

"It's been a tough stretch here," Nowitzki said. "The only way is really up."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.