Nowitzki, Terry form Mavs’ odd couple

DALLAS – For all of the heroics Jason Terry(notes) has delivered the Dallas Mavericks with his clutch shooting, there’s another element of his game that also has produced some head-shaking within the team’s locker room: the oops-my-bad brain freeze.

It can be an untimely turnover … like the ones he committed near the end of the Mavericks’ clinching Game 6 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Or a needless foul … like the one he gave Lamar Odom(notes) some 40 feet from the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series. Or a defensive lapse … like when he allowed Mario Chalmers(notes) to run to the corner and shoot a wide-open, tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

That last one – like more than a few of Terry’s other errors – earned him an earful from Dirk Nowitzki(notes). And yet Nowitzki also promised Terry he’d save him from further shame, then did so by driving for the winning lay-in – after Terry set Chris Bosh(notes) off-balance with a screen.

Such is life with the Mavericks’ odd couple.

“We have a kind of love-hate relationship,” Nowitzki said. “It is because we ride each other a lot. We talk to each other a lot. We argue a lot, even during games, but it's all because we want to win.”

Said Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson: “They’ll go after each other. But there is no question that they also die for each other.”

Terry joined the Mavericks in the summer of 2004 after Nowitzki’s close friend and co-star, Steve Nash(notes), left to sign with the Phoenix Suns. The Mavs acquired JET (Jason Eugene Terry) in a deal that sent Antoine Walker(notes) to the Atlanta Hawks because they valued his scoring ability and clutch shot-making. But there was no easy way to replicate the bond Nowitzki had with Nash.

“Stevie in a lot of respects was Dirk-like in terms of popularity,” Nelson said. “It was a difficult pill to swallow. But when JET showed up, he has this infectious, optimistic demeanor where you can’t help but love the guy. Fans immediately fell in love with his personality.”

Nowitzki had no problems voicing his displeasure when Terry first arrived. The major boiling point in Nowitzki’s and Terry’s young relationship came when their first season together ended in a 130-126 overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the 2005 West semifinals. With Dallas leading 111-108 late in regulation, Terry took his time getting down the court as Nash darted ahead and buried a game-tying 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left. Nowitzki threw his arms in the air as the game went into OT before throwing a towel and screaming at Terry. Afterward, Nowitzki took another shot at Terry saying the Mavs “just weren’t smart enough. With Steve leaving, our overall basketball IQ wasn't that great."

“Dirk really got angry at him,” Nelson said. “It was such an emotional, high-charged deal at the time. Dirk, like a lot of great players, gets frustrated. There were some difficult words. But at the same time he’s the same guy who protects JET when other people are trying to come down on him for similar reasons.”

Terry described those early days playing with Nowitzki as “brutal.” He now says they own a “brotherly relationship” that has “grown through our tough times.”

“He was brutally honest to a point, and I took it hard because I didn't have that coming from a losing situation in Atlanta,” Terry said. “Guys didn't really hold each other accountable. But when it's coming from a guy that's your leader, it means a lot. You take it to heart and then you go out and try to do something about it.”

When Nowitzki made a mistake or had his own mental lapse in practice, former Mavericks coach Avery Johnson used to take out his frustration on Terry, team sources said. Terry would then tell Nowitzki what he needed to do. Eventually, Terry grew comfortable in helping hold Nowitzki accountable.

“If I see something I don't like with Dirk, I say, ‘Hey, big fella, we need you to get that rebound,’ ” Terry said. “We like it. It's something that works for us and guys feed off it.”

While Nowitzki has remained the Mavs’ unquestioned star and leader, Terry has had to redefine his role in recent years. Since the Mavericks acquired point guard Jason Kidd(notes) midway through the 2007-08 season, Terry has primarily been used off the bench as an off-guard.

Terry was rewarded for his work by being named the 2009 Sixth Man of the Year, and has grown into a fan favorite in Dallas. It’s not hard to see why: Despite Terry’s defensive error in Miami, he helped spur the Mavs’ big comeback and finished with 16 points, five assists and twp steals in 31 minutes off the bench. After a rough start to their relationship, Nowitzki also now views Terry as “a winner.”

“When we lost Steve, obviously this franchise was down, to lose a great player like that,” Nowitzki said. “But I give Donnie some credit. He brought in JET, who has been a point guard in this league and a veteran and had a good career there in Atlanta. That was a big move. And for us he's been phenomenal.

“He's been our closer over the last couple of years – a great clutch player.”

Nowitzki and Terry fell shy of winning a championship together in 2006 and are the only two remaining players from that Finals team. After winning the first game of those Finals, Dallas lost the next four to the Heat and was eliminated on their own court. That disaster remains a painful memory for both of them. The Mavs went on to lose in the first round three of the next four years, including in 2007 when they had the league’s best record. Now, they’re back in the Finals with another opportunity.

“That’s really five years of a cross we bear that you can’t really describe unless you have been through it,” Nelson said.

And if Nowitzki and Terry get the three wins needed to claim their elusive championship?

They’ll both have something to yell about.