Challenges mount for Jason Terry

DALLAS -- Jason Terry knows the score, so to speak.

He's been a major part of the problem during the Dallas Mavericks' recent playoff failures. Terry needs to play much, much better than he has in the past few postseasons for the Mavs to push their vacation plans past May.

The Mavs' sixth man doesn't run from that responsibility. He welcomes it, wanting the pressure to produce and the chance to atone for his role in the Mavs' awfully unsuccessful championship missions.

"No question, I'm disappointed the way the last two years of playoffs have gone for myself, personally," Terry said. "I'm a guy that ever since I came to the Mavericks has prided himself in playing not only in fourth quarters, but in playoff basketball, in big games. So I've got something to prove."

It's not as if Terry has never performed well in the postseason. He played for an NCAA title team at Arizona. He was one of the primary reasons Dallas came so painfully close to an NBA championship in 2006, when Terry had a pair of 30-plus-point games in the NBA Finals that the Mavs ultimately lost to the Miami Heat after having parade plans made when they took a 2-0 lead. Plus, he's considered a terrific clutch player in the regular season, annually ranking among the league's leading fourth-quarter scorers (6.2 points per fourth quarter this season).

However, Terry's postseason numbers have steadily slipped each season since those Finals while the Mavs have mastered the miserable art of the one-and-done playoff run. The high-scoring guard known as "JET" crashed in the playoffs last spring, averaging a career-low 12.7 points on .377 shooting in a first-round loss to I-35 rival San Antonio.

Reversing that cruel trend in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers and their big, physical guards would be a tremendous task for Terry under any circumstances. It is especially challenging considering that Terry is still picking up the emotional pieces after a tragic turn in his personal life, which played a role in the most turbulent time in his professional career.

A beloved aunt who helped raise Terry died in late March after a lengthy battle with a disease. His bizarre pattern of behavior, which coincided with a shooting slump, started almost immediately after he flew to his hometown of Seattle to attend the funeral of the woman he affectionately called "Ninnie."

The first sign of trouble came two days after the funeral, when Terry foolishly shoved Lakers guard Steve Blake in the back out of frustration during the fourth quarter of a lopsided loss in Los Angeles. That sparked a brouhaha that resulted in the ejections of four players, including Terry.

A few games later, Terry played poorly on both ends of the floor with the game on the line against the Denver Nuggets, essentially ensuring that the Mavs would lose their fourth consecutive game. He ripped into a referee in the final minute, drawing a technical foul and the public wrath of Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.

Terry's frustrations boiled over again the next game, when he got into a shouting match with teammate J.J. Barea and then Carlisle during a timeout against the Los Angeles Clippers, an incident that became so heated that players, assistant coaches and even owner Mark Cuban had to calm down the 12-year veteran. Carlisle exiled Terry to the end of the bench for the rest of the night, sending a strong message to a player who prides himself in being the Mavs' emotional leader.

"Right now, he's letting emotions get the best of him, which is understandable because he was really close to his aunt," said Danny Cage Jr., a Seattle pastor whom Terry calls his spiritual coach. "I would hope his teammates, the organization, anyone around him can see that he's hurting and just embrace him. This is not how he normally responds to situations."

Terry didn't cause any trouble during the final few games of the regular season, but his strange reaction after missing a free throw to force overtime against the Houston Rockets was cause to be concerned about his focus.

Based on Terry's giddy celebration after the buzzer -- and the instant disappearance of his wide smile when he appeared to glance at the scoreboard while running toward the tunnel before suddenly changing directions and going to the Dallas bench -- it certainly looked as though he thought the Mavs were up one point. He claims he was simply happy that the Mavs still had a shot to win, but the long list of people who find that explanation suspicious at best includes his teammates, who couldn't help snickering as overtime started.

That mistake didn't cost the Mavs anything but an extra five minutes. Terry singlehandedly outscored the Rockets in overtime, 6-5, which the Mavs certainly hope is a sign of clutch things to come.

Simply put, the Mavs can't succeed in the playoffs without Terry serving as Dirk Nowitzki's consistent scoring sidekick. Maybe it would have been different if Caron Butler didn't suffer a serious knee injury that will almost certainly keep him sidelined throughout the playoffs, or if Rodrigue Beaubois didn't regress during his injury-shortened sophomore season.

As it is now, the Mavs need Terry's best to have any realistic hope of making a run through the West.

"That's obvious. That's obvious," said Nowitzki, who has a track record of putting up spectacular numbers in the playoffs. "We've got to rely on his shooting and scoring coming off the bench. But teams know that, and teams have done a good job on him in the playoffs, really jumping him off the pick-and-rolls and making it hard on him. We'll see if we can counter some stuff and get him going in the playoffs."

Terry's preparation began a couple of weeks after last postseason's premature end. He pushed himself through the most rigorous offseason workouts of his career because he was motivated to make up for the playoff misery.

He's put in extra work all season with Mavs coaching consultant Tim Grgurich, considered a Yoda-like figure in NBA circles, and increased that recently to snap out of his slump. He also brought Cage, the spiritual coach, to Dallas for some soul-searching over the past few days.

"I talk about the three elements -- physical, mental and spiritual -- and they're all lined up right now," Terry said. "I'm locked in, man."

Now it's time for Terry to prove it.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.