Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Chandler: 'We're all in this together'

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- In the postgame fog of the debacle in Portland, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle sat on the dais, pointed the finger of blame at himself and then hit on the central theme of this season, imploring his team to "stick together."

No matter the circumstances -- Dirk Nowitzki's sprained knee or Caron Butler's blown-out one, the six-game losing skid or Jason Terry's bench feud with J.J. Barea, the monthlong mediocrity to end the season or Game 4's flummoxing finish -- the Mavs have resisted the urge to unravel as a collective unit.

Yes, they make life hard on themselves and even harder on their fans. No wonder Mark Cuban employs a sports shrink. Yet, as has been noted in this cyberspace more than once throughout this season, this roster full of decorated, 30-something veterans void of a singular championship ring has never lost focus of the ultimate goal, no matter what the experts might say.

Nowitzki We can't really worry what other people say. ... We have a bunch of veterans that want to play off each other and want to win.

-- Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki

After all, the Mavs might be the first No. 3 seed to be largely recognized as a first-round underdog against the No. 6 seed Portland Trail Blazers.

"We can't really worry what other people say all the time," said Nowitzki, who is averaging a series-high 26.2 points per game. "We have a bunch of veterans that want to play off each other and want to win. So I think, yeah, it was a frustrating loss the other day, but like I said, we have a bunch of veterans that have seen a lot in this league and have been through a lot.

"Like I said, we can't always worry about what people say and think, especially, really, if you look at all the critics, who really knows what they're talking about? Not a lot."

The Mavs revealed their unity once again in Game 5's resounding victory, seizing control of the game and the series, 3-2, with a dominant second half.

If Dallas can figure out how to maintain focus for a full 48 minutes, and handle prosperity with the maturity their years and experience would suggest, they just might close out the Blazers in Thursday night's Game 6 and advance to the second round for only the second time since their failed 2006 NBA Finals appearance.

Those seasoned veterans put together their most complete game of the past two postseasons in Game 5. Nowitzki relentlessly attacked the rim. Jason Kidd set the pace with 14 assists. Center Tyson Chandler dominated with 14 points and 20 rebounds. Terry scored 20 points. Shawn Marion hit key baskets. Peja Stojakovic dropped a pair of timely 3-pointers.

The defense, which carried the Mavs in the early season, held Portland to fewer than 90 points for the fourth time in the series and below 85 for the third time.

Skeptics will say the Mavs won't celebrate in the Pacific Northwest, where they haven't won in four tries this season.

The Mavs, however, contend they have shown themselves to be the deeper, more complete team. If they can ever put the mental and the physical together for a consistent run, they might even be considered dangerous.

They will argue that while many will have viewed the Game 4 collapse as another chapter in their recent history of collective postseason weakness, it ultimately served as a vehicle to look within, further close ranks and actually emerge stronger.

"We love each other," said Chandler, whose fiery, 14-point, 20-rebound performance in Game 5 helped Dallas bounce back from the supposed depths of despair. "It's a bunch of good guys in the locker room. We know that we're all in this together."

If a time to bail from the team concept had arrived, the aftermath of Game 4 was it. Chandler and others marveled openly at the lack of adjustments on the defensive end. No one called out Carlisle by name, but there seemed few other ways to interpret such statements.

And then Carlisle fell on the sword, relinquishing responsibility from the players who allowed Brandon Roy to personally overcome a seemingly insurmountable deficit in 13 surreal minutes.

"Everybody has bumped heads at one point or another," Chandler said. "But, you know, that's what it's all about. We're brothers. You're going to bump heads, we're going to have disagreements, but at the end of the day, you're still family."

This series is not over. The Mavs never make it easy, and neither will the frenzied Rose Garden crowd that desperately wants its team to advance to the second round for the first time in more than a decade.

The Mavs know they blew their chance to be at home resting and waiting for their second-round opponent rather than preparing for a second four-hour flight and a pressurized Game 6.

Yet, as they head to Portland after Wednesday's practice, this team of veterans, even after the Game 4 flameout, seems to be relying on the tightness of the bond more than anything else.

"It's a high-quality group of guys, and they're all in this to win," Carlisle said. "I never expected it [disharmony] to be an issue after that game or any game. But, I think as we're heading into Game 6 on the road, that togetherness becomes even more important."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.