ATLANTA -- When a team wins the previous season's NBA title, trying to capture the next one is a bit more difficult.
Opposing teams tend to put their best foot forward when the NBA champs come to town, making it hard just to win games even against the league's bottom-feeders.
Then the champs themselves also have to overcome complacency and try to be hungrier than they were the year before. Such is the case for the Dallas Mavericks, who will begin their quest to repeat as NBA champions when the playoffs start this weekend.
So what's the mental challenge for the Mavericks as they attempt to accomplish what the Los Angeles Lakers accomplished in 2009 and 2010 - winning back-to-back NBA titles?
"Well, you've got to be tough-minded, especially on the road," forward Dirk Nowitzki said. "Teams are going to make runs on you and the building is going to be crazy and you have to withstand that and stop the bleeding.
"I think what really helped us last year was on the defensive end. I think when the game was on the line we were one of the best defensive teams rotating for each other, Tyson [Chandler] plugging all the holes, Jason Kidd and [Shawn Marion] always doing a great job on the opposing team's best players, and that really set us up to make runs at the end of games."
The Mavericks (36-29) will make their 12th consecutive playoff appearance, but before that they will play their final regular-season game at 7 tonight at Philips Arena against the Atlanta Hawks (39-26).
On April 9, the team's management decided the Lamar Odom experiment wasn't working and placed the wayward forward on the inactive list for the remainder of the season. The move lifted a cloud of controversy.
"We've got to maintain an edge," coach Rick Carlisle said. "These two days of practice [Tuesday and Wednesday were] important because we've got to get back to the edge we need to win, and then win in games that follow.
"That's got to be the mentality, and we're looking forward to the challenge ahead."
It's a challenge the Mavericks believe they'll be able to handle.
"You can't be successful and win an NBA championship if you go into it feeling like it 'might' happen," Carlisle said. "You've got to be certain.
"And our group this year has a strong belief, but we know it's not going to be easy. Every year we have to be really process-oriented to play our best, and that's our major focus."
Guard Jason Terry went out of his way to make sure everyone knows that he and his teammates are just as hungry this year as they were during last year's championship run.
"We're just focusing in on each game and each possession every time you step on the court," Terry said. "It sounds like a cliché, but you have to be locked in on every single possession because one possession can change a series, as you know.
"And we've got to be the team that wins the loose ball battle. Every little thing, we have to win."
Carlisle, an attention-to-details coach, agrees.
"The important things are going to continue to be the important things," Carlisle said. "Dirk has got to be great, our stars have to be stars, our role players have to provide balance and support, and we have to play with an edge. And that's where it's at."
Nowitzki added that the Mavericks need to find ways to win games even when their offense struggles.
"We got stops and we were able to speed the game up some and play off the flow in transition," Nowitzki said of last year. "So, ultimately if you're good defensively you can be in games and big road games and give yourself a chance to win."
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760