Challenges only get harder from here
'Different Mavs' have shown mental toughness, but still face more tests down the road
"Not having a mental edge dulls the physical edge you have been working toward. Develop and train the mental aspect of your game" -- @think2win via Twitter (aka Dr. Don Kalkstein, Dallas Mavericks sports psychology coach).
DALLAS -- Who are these swashbuckling Dallas Mavericks? The ones who unraveled the weakened two-time world champs while reaffirming their own team-wide belief of upgraded mental toughness?
They've talked all season about being "different" from past Mavs teams. The four-game sweep of L.A. is entered as evidence, although the physical work and mental challenges only mount from here.
"It's tough because every game, every series is a new challenge and is going to be a new test," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "And for us, mentally, it's always going to be there, that factor. Any time it looks like there's a crack or we're in a fragile mental state, they're going to point back to what happened in '06. So it's a thin line and we always know that if we keep pushing, pushing and pushing forward, eventually we're going to shake that."
Can they be trusted? Are these Mavs truly mentally tougher than their well-chronicled, gut-wrenched predecessors?
And what does it really mean?
"First of all, it means that they're on an absolute mission where their priority in life is to win the world championship, and no petty stuff becomes more important than that," preeminent sports psychologist Bob Rotella said. "That means that every guy on the team's got to know their role and feel good about their role and embrace their role and say, 'I don't care if it's the dream role that gets all the glory or some other role, we're all going to do whatever we need to do for the good of the team.' "
For the first time in five years, the Mavs are back in the Western Conference finals. They've shaken off years of self-inflicted criticism, skepticism and cynicism. In these playoffs, they've overcome a terrifying, "here-we-go-again" collapse in Game 4 at Portland, a near-tragic letdown in Game 6 and an end-of-half meltdown in Game 1 at Los Angeles that could have -- but, importantly, did not -- cost them the game.
"I think what the Mavericks are showing is when they all play together and they play hard and they play fast every day they can beat anybody," said Rotella, a longtime confidential ears and voice to scores of PGA Tour golfers and NBA players and coaches. "It's a very, very fine line and a lot of times under pressure -- and I think this is another part of what mental toughness is -- when you get deep in the playoffs you are going to have moments in almost every game where you're either going to hang in there and do what you normally do and believe in yourself, or people are going to start getting selfish and things start splitting apart.
"And when you do that, you start blaming everything on somebody else rather than taking responsibility for it."
Rotella has a unique interest in the Mavs' plight. The former University of Virginia sports psychology professor mentored Mavs coach Rick Carlisle as a student in the classroom and on the basketball court. Rotella traveled with the Cavaliers, including Carlisle's surprise 1984 Final Four squad, and routinely met with the team's players and coaches.
"Rick was one of those guys as a player who was great at getting everybody to pull together and be a part of the team," said Rotella, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., and currently is at the PGA Tour's The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla. "He was a great leader and a very tough-minded guy."
Those qualities have served as Carlisle's strengths before and after injuries threw the season for a loop. He has exuded supreme confidence in -- and camaraderie with -- his players. His ability to get veteran players to sacrifice and buy into specific roles has been the feel-good theme and recipe for success of this team.
At Carlisle's first two head coaching stops, at Detroit and then Indiana, neither club employed a full-time sports psychologist. The Mavs do, and Carlisle fully endorses Dr. Don Kalkstein, who is always with the team at home and on the road. He is on the court during workouts wearing team-issued practice gear like any other assistant coach, and he roams the court with a basketball tucked between his hip and arm like any other assistant.
Kalkstein is constantly chatting up players, sometimes one-on-one as he was with Ian Mahinmi leaning against a wall of the practice gym Tuesday morning, and then later sitting against a wall with Rodrigue Beaubois. Or he might engage guys together as he did when he shared a laugh and a conversation with Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic.
He sends positively focused text messages to the cell phones of each player every morning. He has his own office at the American Airlines Center, and players are free to drop by whenever they want.
"I talk to Don every day. I make it a point to go through him," Terry said. "He's like the weatherman. When you talk to Don Kalkstein, you're going to find out the mood of the team. And so doing that, and being one of the leaders, I try to find out what button we got to push today to get guys motivated."
Kalkstein, who earned a World Series ring in 2007 as the Boston Red Sox's psych coach between his two stints with the Mavs, declined an interview for this article. However, he is a frequent user of Twitter, posting his messages of positive mental techniques and tips under the handle, @think2win.
"When you lose control of your focus, you will lose control of the ability to make quality decisions during competition." -- @think2win
How else can the Game 3 meltdown in the 2006 NBA Finals be explained? Or the 2007 first-round series exit against Golden State? Or a Game 6 ouster last season against San Antonio? Or a Game 4 loss than three weeks ago at Portland?
While the rosters and even the coaching staffs have changed, the hard lesson remains the same.
"Part of being mentally tough is having the resilience and acceptance to just take whatever mistakes you make and accept them as part of the game," Rotella said. "It's about not letting it bother you or get you down."
The potentially catastrophic events in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against Portland have now come to be defined by the Mavs as their mental tipping point.
"That was the best thing that could have happened for us because it took us back to the past, and it was something that no one here wants to revisit," said center Tyson Chandler, who is in his first season with the Mavs. "That was the longest plane ride that we could have possibly had going from Portland back to Dallas, and no one wants to feel like that anymore."
Dallas hasn't lost since, winning six in a row. Even after the mental meltdown at Los Angeles in Game 1 of the conference semifinals when Terry hacked Lamar Odom on a half-court heave at the halftime buzzer, Dirk Nowitzki followed with an elbow for a technical and the third quarter opened with three consecutive turnovers for a 60-44 deficit, the Mavs responded positively.
This time the tables were turned and it was the Mavs who came together and made the comeback. The Lakers unraveled into a chaotic mess and never recovered.
"I think mental toughness comes from believing in yourself and at the same time not getting rattled," center Brendan Haywood said. "If a team runs off eight, nine, 10 points in a row, you don't get rattled, you stay the course, you stick to the plan and you don't fray from the team system. That's mental toughness to me."
"Mental mistakes can make a difference, but Mental composure WILL make a difference." -- @think2win
Whether the Mavs face the Memphis Grizzlies or Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, Dallas will be by far the more experienced playoff team and it would figure to give Dallas an edge in pressure situations and handling adversity throughout a series.
It's why the Mavs traded for point guard Jason Kidd in 2008. They wanted a proven hand, a floor general to guide the team through rough situations. In his fourth postseason with the Mavs, Kidd, 38, is delivering those qualities, from his 42 combined points in the first two games of the first round, to his insatiable desire to spread the ball around on offense, to defensively locking down Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of Games 1 and 3 in the second round.
Shawn Marion has described Kidd as the head of the snake. Assistant coach Dwane Casey said Kidd is a calming influence.
Conversely, cracks have already shown between Oklahoma City's 22-year-old stars, point guard Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Neither the Thunder nor the Grizzlies have proved capable of holding a substantial lead, and both have shown a measure of poor decision-making during the course of games and especially in crunch-time situations.
"We're probably the oldest team still left," Kidd said. "We have to use our wisdom and our experiences. Yes, they might be younger, but also they are talented."
It can also be argued that either of the Mavs' foes will be more fragile and more susceptible to the kind of mental lapses that have sabotaged Dallas time and again. To advance to the franchise's second NBA Finals, the Mavs must act like the older, wiser team and the one more committed to the success of the group.
"If what you learn from experience is to believe in yourself more and to get more confident and more committed to really coming together as a team, well, that's an advantage," Rotella said. "Young teams, they may have the experience of feeling like they have no pressure. But I think sometimes veterans have, 'OK, we don't have many more chances; we've got to go do it.' And that can really help you."
That urgency, realized in training camp, has spurred these Mavs to attain the mindset to focus on a championship goal.
To accomplish it, the belief that they are mentally tough enough will have to be continuously proven out on the court.
"Your thoughts will affect your performance and your performance will affect your thoughts. Learn about this connection." -- @think2win
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.