DALLAS — When Avery Johnson became coach of the Dallas Mavericks in March, his first priority was changing the team's identity. His mantra: When you defend, you always have a chance to win.
That's sound logic, especially from someone who learned it while winning a championship with the San Antonio Spurs. But this is Dallas, where the Mavericks have a long reputation as scorers, not stoppers.
So when Kobe Bryant scored 43 points against Dallas a few weeks ago, then came back a few days later with 62 -- in three quarters! -- the reaction around the country was predictable.
Critics who've been paying attention to Johnson's push said it proved he'll never change the team's mind-set. Others who remembered Don Nelson's annual halfhearted pledge to step up the defense laughed them off as "the same old Mavericks."
Johnson was furious, of course. Yet instead of punishing the team with a five-hour film session, he considered it a good test to see whether his principles were taking root.
"How do you respond when you're the lead story even on 'Good Morning America,' not just `SportsCenter?' " Johnson said.
The answer is enough to make "The Little General" drop his usual sideline scowl and revert to his trademark wide smile and cackling laugh.
Dallas is 3-0 since its last Bryant debacle, overcoming fourth-quarter deficits to win road games against Sacramento and Seattle, then returning home and outhustling Indiana from the start.
The Mavericks also went into the weekend on an 11-2 roll, with both losses coming against Bryant and the Lakers. The streak took Dallas to the second-best record in the Western Conference, barely behind San Antonio, and third-best in the NBA behind Detroit, a team they beat by 37 earlier this season.
"It's a big motivator," small forward Josh Howard said of rebounding from the Bryant games. "We've been a good defensive team and don't want to let that happen again. We're conscious of who can score the ball on the other team. We take that as a personal challenge."
Johnson knows this is a work in progress, so he's always looking for signs of when he has his team's attention and when he doesn't. He could tell they were reverting to bad habits by trying to outscore Seattle last week, so he went extra heavy on his monologues, hammering them at every timeout and at halftime. It paid off toward the end when he overheard players telling each other, "Let's try to win with our defense."
"You're trying to reprogram some stuff," he said.
Even with the ongoing transformation, Dallas remains among the scoring leaders at 99.03 points per game. But by allowing 94.3 points, the Mavericks are also on the cusp of the top 10 defensive clubs, a rating the franchise last had in 1990.
The attitude change also is evident on the boards. Dallas is fifth in overall rebounds. More importantly, the Mavs grab 4.0 more rebounds per game than their opponents, a big turnaround from getting outrebounded by 0.3 per game last season.
"They've become a very strong-willed team," Pacer Coach Rick Carlisle said. "Their defensive toughness is in evidence. They're more consistent on defense and in their rebounding. This is an adjustment in their style that they were playing. They were more of a free-flowing team and that has changed."
It all starts with Johnson, a former point guard who began aiming at a coaching career long before his playing days ended.
He signed with Dallas in the summer of 2004 to be a player-coach, grooming to eventually take over. That day came sooner than anyone expected when Nelson resigned with about a month left in the season.
The Mavs went 16-2 for Johnson, then opened the playoffs with consecutive home losses against Houston. Amid talk that he was getting outcoached by Jeff Van Gundy, Johnson stayed calm and rallied Dallas to a series win, capped by a 40-point rout in Game 7.
Jerry Stackhouse said Johnson's approach to practice before Game 3 was when he won over the locker room.
"We came out and there was energy," Stackhouse said. "You could feel his energy. It was like, 'Come on!' "
After being eliminated by Phoenix in six games the next round, Johnson spent the summer refining his system, then laid it all out in training camp.
"We're not ahead of the curve, but I think we've made significant progress in a short time," he said.
A big key is that he has a deep roster nicely suited for what he's trying to accomplish. And it helps to have Dirk Nowitzki in the middle of it all.
Nowitzki has bought into Johnson's system and is still averaging a career-best 26.4 points with 9.1 rebounds per game. After making All-NBA last season, he's generating MVP talk for his play all over the court and his leadership, which the team needs now that he's the only remaining member of a prized Big Three that also featured Steve Nash and Michael Finley.