It was the end of the third quarter of the Mavericks' game against the Celtics and Rick Carlisle was confounded. Across from him stood Brad Stevens, Boston's wunderkind head coach, who had just orchestrated a masterful third quarter, erasing a 13-point halftime deficit to put the Celtics up two with the fourth quarter ahead of them. And Carlisle, cycling through his various basketball remedies, still hadn't come across one that worked.
This isn't a situation Carlisle faces frequently. He's universally regarded as a top-five coach in the NBA, with most people placing him behind only Gregg Popovich. Carlisle was actually fresh off a matchup against the wizened San Antonio maestro, one where Carlisle stormed onto the court for a third quarter ejection -- but that blowout loss had been about talent, not coaching. But Monday's game against Boston was different.
Stevens made a substitution just 98 seconds into the second half, pulling the physical but limited Amir Johnson for the range of Kelly Olynyk. The offense now featured five shooters while the defense, despite involving a couple of players little known for their defense, came together better than the sum of its parts.
"Boston does some very creative things on defense that you have to prepare for," Carlisle said. "It's hard on a back-to-back getting ready for 1-3-1 underneath out of bounds situations, sideout 1-3-1 traps. They put you in positions where you have to do some of that stuff and our guys handled it well, but there's a lot that you have to deal with."
Dallas pulled through in overtime, beating the Celtics 118-113 with strong showings from Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams. For a quarter, though, Brad Stevens had Rick Carlisle on the ropes. In fact, Boston led for nearly nine straight minutes in the fourth before Dallas regained the lead, eventually going to overtime.
The Mavericks' struggles weren't for lack of trying. Carlisle tried Dwight Powell at center, something he's only done for 66 minutes in January, per NBAwowy.com. He threw out a three-guard lineup playing zone. There was a lot of small ball, with Parsons taking more of his minutes at power forward throughout the game. He didn't go to JaVale McGee, suspecting his perimeter defense would be abused by Boston's shooting bigs. Carlisle, king of the quirky lineup solutions, ran through the gamut on Monday, with Stevens matching him almost the entire way.
"Brad's a great coach, flat out," Carlisle said after the game. "Hey, when you go against them, you're looking at a lot of different, creative lineups, situational basketball. He does a great job using his bigs in shotmaking situations. Olynyk hit a couple ridiculous shots, made it really tough on us."
Carlisle, who is the president of the NBA Coaches Association, said before the game he's spent time with Stevens the past two summers, even going out to Indiana last year. "I'm really proud, as president of our association, that he's in the NBA," Carlisle continued. "He's one of the best coaches in the world."
In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, Carlisle finally threw out the small ball experiment, putting Dirk Nowitzki and Zaza Pachulia in the front court. It was a defensive mismatch -- Olynyk pulled Pachulia out to the three-point line and Isaiah Thomas burned Dallas inside in several instances -- but it worked both ways. After scoring just 10 points through three quarters, Dirk dropped 21 in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a couple vintage post moves against smaller defenders when Boston tried to zone the Mavericks.
"When the game got (more) into small ball, we had a matchup," Carlisle said of Dirk. "He got loose for some shots in transition where it helped."
Dirk, who started the game making just three of his first 11 shots, thanked an early fourth quarter make.
"In the fourth quarter there, I had a pull up that finally went in," he said. "That's what I needed. I needed a shot to go in, I needed a shot to go through the net. So it was better after that."
Deron Williams will plenty of credit for the win, too -- completely deserved, as he scored 20 points, half coming in the overtime period as he nailed several timely jumpers.
Carlisle's impact, on the other hand, will go underappreciated again, even as his usual dominance turned into a hidden war of sideline attrition. But maybe that's a nice change of pace for Carlisle, not used to challenges like the ones Stevens posed on Monday. Maybe they'll even laugh about it when they meet up next summer.