Dallas is now using defense as a weapon in its charge towards the title.
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By Jon Palmieri

The Dallas Mavericks were already headed toward their fifth straight 50-win season when Avery Johnson became their full-time head coach on March 19, 2005. Despite that success, Johnson saw a team in need of a change in philosophy and style.

Now nearing the end of his first full season at the helm, Johnson's efforts have molded the Mavs into one of the league's dominant teams, one with a realistic chance at the franchise's first NBA title.

The Mavs' success under Johnson isn't all that surprising considering the player he was during a 16-year career that included a world championship as the point guard for the 1998-99 Spurs. Though undrafted out of Southern University, Johnson became the 75th player in NBA history to play 1,000 career games; he and Calvin Murphy are the only two men under six feet tall to reach that milestone.

Johnson won 16 of 18 regular-season games after replacing Don Nelson in 2004-05 and was the fastest coach in league history to 50 wins. A 91-87 victory over Cleveland on March 14 gave the Mavericks a 50-14 mark and moved Johnson to 66-16 for his career, the best 82-game start that any NBA coach has ever had. Paul Westphal held the previous mark with 62 wins against 20 losses when he took over the Suns for the 1992-93 campaign.

Johnson's work has not gone unnoticed. He was Coach of the Month for April 2005 and again for November, making him the first person to win the award in his first two months on the job. He captured the honor again in January of 2006 when Dallas won 13 of 15 games.

Johnson has put himself among the leading contenders for Coach of the Year by transforming a team that for years employed a score-at-all-costs mentality to one that now favors a more determined defensive style and prides itself on limiting the opposition. Under Johnson, the Mavs have completely changed their identity while still remaining a potent offensive team. Dallas will finish this season among the league's top 10 in points scored and points allowed, a rarity in today's NBA.

"If we're strong defensively, that is what will ultimately win it for us," Mavericks star forward Dirk Nowitzki said after a two-point win over the Clippers on April 10. "It has always been the key for us in the playoffs. If we rebound and defend are keys. We have a lot of weapons that we can use. We should be alright offensively."

One of the best examples of Dallas' newfound commitment to defense was its 92-86 win at San Antonio on April 7. The Mavs limited the defending-champion Spurs to 37 percent (31-of-82) from the field and held All-Stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to a combined 23 points on 10-of-30 shooting.

Regardless of philosophy and tactics, a coach is only as good as his players and Johnson has the luxury of calling upon Nowitzki, one of the key figures in this season's hotly-contested MVP race, every night. Dirk's brilliant offensive game is well documented, but the 7-foot German has also improved tremendously as a defensive player under Johnson's tutelage.

Nowitzki has not missed a game all season and Johnson feels that further supports his MVP resume.

"I think it's got to count for something," Johnson told the Dallas Morning News. "And he's consistently good. He may not have the 60-point games or whatever. But he's consistently good at what he does, and that should weigh for something."

What Johnson doesn't have on his roster is a second star player to complement the do-it-all Nowitzki. Jason Terry is the team's second-leading scorer but isn't a natural point guard. Third-year forward Josh Howard is an emerging force, but injuries have forced him to miss nearly one-third of the season.

Howard isn't the only key player that has missed time for Dallas. Veteran Jerry Stackhouse sat out the first 26 games of the 2005-06 campaign with a sore knee, but has returned to provide much-needed offense off the bench. Injuries also have affected the development of guards Marquis Daniels and Devin Harris. Keith Van Horn, Nowitzki's primary backup, suffered a broken hand on March 31, and is not expected to return for the playoffs.

Despite those injuries, Johnson and the Mavericks are currently 59-21, putting them within grasp of the best regular season in franchise history (60-22 in 2002-03). They are also in the running for the top seed in the Western Conference, something Johnson doesn't believe is absolutely necessary for postseason success.

"Everybody says we desperately need to be a No. 1 seed to have a shot of winning the West," Johnson told the Dallas Morning News. "I disagree. I just think we need to be playing good basketball and we need to be healthy, mentally and physically. That, to me, gives us our best shot."

Regardless of regular-season success, the Mavericks and Johnson will ultimately be judged on their postseason performance. Dallas advanced to the Western Conference semfinals in 2004-05, losing to Phoenix in six games. A full season under Johnson, however, could have these new-look Mavs poised for a much deeper playoff run.

Avery Johnson won 66 of his first 82 games as the Mavs' head coach.
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Dirk has enjoyed his finest offensive season and is in the MVP hunt.
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