Mavs still trying to lose 'soft' label

DALLAS -- The claim is that the four-letter word that came flying out of coach Rick Carlisle's mouth did nothing to fire up the Dallas Mavericks.

So what if their coach called them "soft" after a horrific loss Wednesday night to the New Orleans Hornets? Who cares if Carlisle repeated for emphasis the insulting term heard so often the past decade in Dallas?

That had absolutely, positively zero impact on the Mavs' intensity level during their 127-109 whipping of the New York Knicks less than 24 hours later. It didn't motivate them to dominate the glass (47-37), play respectable defense (42.5 field goal percentage allowed) or attack the rim (52 points in the paint). That's their story and they're sticking to it.

"None whatsoever," said guard Jason Terry, who had 21 points off the bench in the Mavs' highest-scoring performance of the season. "We know what kind of team that we are."

Added forward Dirk Nowitzki, who had 23 points and appeared to resist the urge to roll his eyes when asked about Carlisle's comments: "I've been in this league for 13 years. Sometimes the coach tries to spark the team up with some comments, but I've been around the block a little too long."

Carlisle elaborated on his comments before the game without using the S-bomb again, but he had no interest in continuing the discussion after the win. It was a much bigger deal to the media than the Mavericks, he insisted.

Maybe that's all true, but I'm not buying it.

This seems like a classic case of a coach who felt that his team needed a swift kick in the butt and delivered it by describing them with the most offensive word possible.

"Only in Dallas," owner Mark Cuban said of that word's deeper meaning, well aware that it has hung over the Mavs' heads throughout the Dirk era.

No, especially in Dallas.

The Mavs are in the midst of the most successful ring-less decade-plus stretch in NBA history. They've been cursed with a reputation for being as tough as tissue paper in the process. That started because of the defensive allergies of former coach Don Nelson's teams, and it intensified with the 2006 Finals flop and three first-round exits in the next four seasons, including unprecedented losses as the No. 1 and 2 seed.

They kept telling us that this team, full of playoff-tested veterans starved for a title, was different. Big man Tyson Chandler, an athletic intimidator and emotional leader, provided an edge that had never existed in Dallas.

"I keep saying it, but there's nothing soft about this team," Terry said. "You look at our record, and you've got to be a tough team to accomplish what we have to this point and to go where we're going. And I'll leave it at that."

If only it were that easy. The problem is that Carlisle's harsh criticism had some merit, which doesn't change just because the Mavs kicked the Knicks' butts the next night.

Yes, the Mavs have won 20 of 23 games, which might make the timing of such pointed comments seem odd. But there has been significant defensive slippage in the past two months, although it's been masked by offensive magnificence and a soft stretch of schedule. And it disturbed Carlisle to see his players let the Hornets bully them, with the Mavs failing to respond after Marco Belinelli's flagrant foul on Shawn Marion or David West's cheap shot on Nowitzki.

"I just see more and more teams that are taking physical liberties on our guys, and so much of this game to me is about disposition, both physically and mentally," Carlisle said before Thursday's game. "We've been very good this year, but I always feel like we can be better and more consistent. That's really where it's at."

If the Mavs are being honest with themselves, they'll admit that Carlisle has a point. They can do that despite despising the word he used.

"We got to go out there and respond, and I think at times we do play too tentative," said Marion, who had an ultimate tough-guy performance versus the Knicks, delivering 22 points and eight rebounds while playing terrific defense on Carmelo Anthony despite sore ribs made worse by the crash landing courtesy of Belinelli. "I wouldn't say soft, but tentative."

One night with the appropriate amount of aggressiveness doesn't change that. The Mavs need to keep it coming.

Frankly, they'll have to prove it against the Los Angeles Lakers to really rid themselves of the soft rap. They get a shot at L.A. on Saturday night, when the Mavs have a chance to extend their advantage for the West's second seed to 2.5 games over the two-time defending champions.

But that's just about positioning for proving time, the postseason. Beat L.A. in the second round -- assuming the Mavs avoid another first-round stumble -- and suddenly the skeptics become believers.

That's the hard part.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.