DALLAS -- Rick Carlisle insists that his approach to communicating with his players hasn't changed. Except for perhaps, he said, one odd aspect.
"I got a haircut," the Dallas Mavericks coach said drily.
Hair doesn't make a man, but can it make a basketball team? Not likely.
Carlisle, in his third season with the Mavs, refuses to divulge what urged him to self-buzz his formerly supremely coiffed hair into a crop-top. However, others in the organization are talking of a more engaging, equally stern, yet more relaxed and comfortably in-charge head coach who has his team, more or less, humming along on the backbone of defense and accountability to one another while taking a leap of faith in him.
"Actually, the comedian seems like it is more coming out of him right now," reserve Mavs forward Shawn Marion said. "He's been serious and adamant about making sure we play defense and do things a certain way. Other than that, he's actually been kind of funny at times this year."
Things turned a bit more somber Monday night after the Milwaukee Bucks rallied from a 20-point deficit to snap the Mavs' winning streak at 12, ending it where Dallas stopped San Antonio's a couple weeks ago as the league's longest of the season.
Now that the streak is over, the acid test becomes how the Mavs will react.
At 19-5, Dallas is slightly ahead of where it was a season ago when, at 19-7, a familiar defensive storyline was making the rounds. That team lapsed defensively, had personnel issues and wobbled throughout the winter and into the All-Star break, when owner Mark Cuban shook up the roster. Despite going on to win 55 games after a late 13-game win streak, the Mavs flamed out in the first round of the playoffs to San Antonio amid controversy and disappointment.
This group claims that stability, an unwavering commitment to defense and a collective, one-for-all mindset make it different. The Mavs are mixing up man coverage with hefty doses of well-executed zone schemes, and it has produced some dominant fourth quarters against Boston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Utah.
Spearheaded by the physical and emotional presence of fiery 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler, defense seems to be more a passion than a passing fancy.
"That's the biggest thing that we can now believe in is we can see the progress of playing defense and getting stops," 17-year veteran point guard Jason Kidd said. "Every night you're not going to make shots, but you can always figure out something else to do -- get a steal, get a big rebound, cheer your teammate on, go up to your teammate and say, 'Hey, I believe you're going to make your next shot.'
"Those things carry a lot of weight, not just scoring 20 points a night, and I think everybody's bought into that."
Carlisle, it seems, is a cautious believer. He has pushed all the right buttons so far on a club loaded with veterans, career starters and All-Stars, all of whom, however, are chasing a first championship ring. But, he's also wary of the signs over the past 10 days.
"Right now, I'm curious how we're going to respond. It's important," Carlisle said. "At this point last year is when we had one of our dips defensively, and right now we've got to circle the wagons and make sure that we can stay on track. And, not only sustain, but get better."
It all adds up to one of the more intriguing storylines of the NBA season. The seemingly taciturn head coach has the historically offensive-minded Mavs roaring, believing in defense and one another. It's a 180-degree turnabout for a team that seemed distanced from its coach and ripe for ego and attitude clashes after a demoralizing unraveling in last season's playoff loss to the Spurs.
"I think he's recognized where we are and what we have," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said of Carlisle, "and he has adjusted to it and gone with it."
Recall that Carlisle benched Caron Butler for the second half of Game 3 against the Spurs. Marion's minutes were slashed to the point where he lashed out, saying he was being yanked in and out like a "rag doll." Kidd didn't show at the team's exit day, when players meet with coaches for the final time and clear out their lockers.
Yet soon after the season was over, Carlisle was off to Washington, D.C., to meet with Butler, and then to Chicago to visit with Marion.
Immediately, Carlisle began laying the groundwork for roles that neither player finds wholly appealing, but ones both have willingly accepted. Butler is playing fewer minutes than ever before and Marion is coming off the bench exclusively for the first time in his career. It's just one example of the unity that's driving this club.
"We knew coming in that this had to be a completely selfless team-type atmosphere and approach and hey, if we have any problems, guys are going to get put out there as problems, and we've seen it once," Carlisle said. "It was resolved decisively and we move on. But we're not going to have any of that stuff."
Carlisle referenced the one-game suspension he handed to backup center Brendan Haywood before the Nov. 26 game in San Antonio for a dustup between the two during shootaround. Carlisle sent Haywood home, and in something of a sign of the Mavs' all-for-one karma, third-string center Ian Mahinmi stepped up with a strong performance to help snap the Spurs' win streak.
The Haywood blowup has proved to be an isolated incident and one that veers from the coach-player dynamic otherwise established this season. Carlisle has always been hands-on -- eager to work with players one-on-one on the practice court after workouts and shootarounds -- but this season there seems to be a more amenable two-way street of approachability, and a tie to togetherness.
The players suggested that little-used guard DeShawn Stevenson could invigorate the defense as the starting shooting guard and allow for Terry's offensive punch to enliven the bench. It has worked to near perfection.
"One thing about this job, a leadership position, you've got to make the decisions, but you've also got to listen, particularly to those three guys," Carlisle said. "And the fact that they believed that was something that could help us, and DeShawn knew about it, and it energized him and it's given us a really important lift."
Most significant, though, has been the players' unconditional buy-in at the defensive end. After Saturday's second win over the Jazz in eight days, Utah star guard Deron Williams gushed about the Mavs' stingy defense, although it's dropped off since -- now ranking sixth in field goal percentage (43.4) and fifth in scoring (93.0).
During the just-ended streak, early MVP candidate Nowitzki led an efficient offense in which a varied group of four and even five players routinely scored in double figures, greatly reducing the burden on Nowitzki to carry the nightly load.
Most striking, though, is the defensive tenacity and the camaraderie, the willingness of veteran players to accept individual roles and embrace the team concept.
"For us, I think it was just a matter of us getting used to him and him getting used to us and then us just talking to him, and not always us being right," Kidd said. "I think he has a great open-door policy. You can always go and talk to him, and also during a game you can talk to him, tell him what you see, and it's been pretty good."
The importance of roster stability can't be understated. Only Nowitzki, Terry, Kidd and J.J. Barea remain from Carlisle's first team just two seasons ago. For the first time, Carlisle went into an offseason knowing what he had and he formulated a plan that wasn't without significant risk.
He sold it. The players bought it. Now it's up to both to see it through.
"At the end of the day we're all professionals here and we want to win," Marion said. "Whatever we've got to do to help make this team a better competitive team, everybody is willing to do that and that's the collaboration of guys we have in here."