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Steve Aschburner

Jason Terry (left) has made a point of emphasis to improve his defense this season.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Super-sub Terry carving new niche with defense

Posted Nov 17 2009 2:15PM

When you think of Jason Terry, you think of defense. Not first, of course. Maybe not even second. More like 47th on any list of things that spring to mind about the Dallas Mavericks' veteran combo guard and, even then, it traditionally has been along the lines of "Does he ever play any?" Well, this year, the answer is yes. Known almost exclusively as an offensive threat -- one potent enough last season (19.6 ppg, 167 three-pointers) to earn the NBA's Sixth Man Award -- Terry noticeably has hitched up his defensive effort so far this season. In so doing, he has typified and contributed to Dallas' tactics in its 8-3 start.

Terry -- long considered one of the league's most effervescent and quick-to-smile players -- can't completely convince you that he enjoys getting stops as much as hitting shots. Like the 15-footer he sank from the wing to force overtime in Dallas' eventual victory at Milwaukee on Monday night. Or the countless clutch shots Terry has taken and made since arriving as the 10th overall pick in 1999 (hey, same as Brandon Jennings, a decade removed). But when a 10-year veteran in a role heavily tilted toward offense cleans things up at the other end of the floor, at least through the season's first three weeks, it's worth noting. And talking about. I caught up with Terry during a four-game trip in which the Mavericks held opponents to an average of 90.8 points. So is this a case of an old dog learning a new trick?


Jason Terry: Not really. It's more about me doing what my teammates need for us to be successful. I'm a guy who's looked upon to score, but if the guys see me out there aggressively D-ing up, they get juiced up. Coach has made that a point. He addressed it in training camp, and that's something I'm concentrating on every night to do. Make an impact on the game defensively. The Mavericks have shaved about five points off their defensive average from last season [down from 99.8 to 94.6]. Basketball purists will love that. But this is a franchise that has been known for offense. Is it as satisfying, though, to win games when you're not simply outscoring the other guys?

JT: No question. It's a great feeling. And it's something we're trying to get accustomed to [laughs]. It'll take a minute. But it definitely feels good. In our wins, we've been successful because we've gotten stops. Even in our losses, we've had stretches where we've played outstanding defense. There's no question the key to our success -- we definitely want to make shots, that's what we do best -- but defensively, we've all gotten better. That's a credit to Erick Dampier in the middle. He's averaging three or four blocks a game, rebounding his butt off. It allows us to get out and gamble a little more and get steals. So might we see you go from Sixth Man of the Year one season to Defensive Player of the Year the next?

JT: Ha! I don't know, I wouldn't go that far. But I'm definitely going to try to get back to back Sixth Man. Only Detlef Schrempf [1992, '93] and Kevin McHale [1984, '85] ever did that. Ricky Pierce is the only other player to win Sixth Man more than once. You're OK with that as a goal?

JT: I love it. Love it to death. A lot of players wouldn't. After your rookie season, you were almost exclusively a starter [531 starts in 563 appearances from 2000-01 through 2006-07]. When the Mavericks went to the Finals in 2006, you started [Terry and Dirk Nowitzki were the only Dallas players to start at least 80 games]. Is this a role you would have resisted earlier in your career?

JT: Not at all. Going back to my college career, when we won the NCAA championship in '97, I was the sixth man. That was a great team -- Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon. So we had the guys who were starting and I took the back seat. Came off the bench, brought the same kind of energy, and it translated into a championship. I suppose there is one advantage -- you get to be in there with the second unit but you also get to be in there down the stretch. Most guys get minutes at crunch time or at garbage time but not both.

JT: Yeah, 'cuz I'm basically a bench guy. I get to see the rhythm, the flow of the game and it actually helps defensively, because you can see where a guy's kind of lazy with a pass. Or the habits that they have. I use it to my advantage. You mentioned college, where you gained a reputation for your "rituals" or superstitions. Still have any?

JT: No doubt. You've got to remember, I sleep in the opposing teams' game shorts the night before the game. So I've collected over the years every team's game shorts. Did it in college. Slept in my uniform the night before the Final Four game and we won, so I've been doing it ever since. Is this like Michael Jordan wearing a pair of North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform?

JT: No. Just sleep in 'em. Night before. It's working out. Staying with it! The other thing that doesn't get talked about in your career is your durability. [Terry jammed his left index finger earlier that evening and, after precautionary X-rays, had it in a padded sleeve in the locker room afterward.] You played in 800 of a possible 820 games prior to this season and missed only eight of those last season with a broken left hand. You're not exactly the most strapping guy [6-foot-2, 180]. What's the secret?

JT: It goes to my training program. We have one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in Robert Hackett. Whatever he's doing every summer, I'm with him, and I've been very durable. Even when I was in Atlanta, I've been very blessed not to have any major injuries. Same way in high school and college?

JT: I don't remember missing any games in college and I dang sure know I didn't miss any in high school. Health in this business is precious. A lot of guys miss a lot of games. But I'm one of those guys who, if it ain't a bone stickin' out or I can't walk or I'm not missing a foot, I'm out there. You started out cold tonight. For a shooter, what's the key to playing through that?

JT: That's when your defensive instincts kick in. "Lemme get a steal, lemme get a layup, lemme get a put-back, lemme get something." That's what happened for me tonight -- I was 0-for-3 and then I got a breakaway steal and layup. Those are the little nuances of the game that you've got to focus on -- especially when your jump shot ain't going. With the All-Star Weekend in Dallas this season, how much would you like to be involved?

JT: Ah, man, I'm tremendously excited. The fans in the city of Dallas deserve it. What could be better than to be a part of it in any way, fashion or form? Done the 3-point contest. I'd love to do that again. Mascot, sell popcorn, whatever they want me to do, I'll be involved. Mascot? Somehow I believe you. You went to the Great Wall of China last summer and did a video for this Web site. You offered to give Shawn Marion your No. 31 when he came to Dallas this season. You do seem to have more fun at this than some guys.

JT: Aw, you've got to love this. This is something you've watched as a kind growing up and now you're here. I'm still a fan at heart. So if I'm not out there playing, I'm watching. Spoken like a true Sixth Man winner.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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