It happens to every NBA team once a season, it seems. The starters will struggle, getting pounded in the third quarter and going down by 20 points or so early in the fourth. A bench unit will enter, and something about that different look will allow them to quickly push their team back into the game. Maybe a guard gets hot from the perimeter, or maybe a big man nabs three straight offensive rebounds that directly leads to points. Every time this happens, the coach has to make a decision with two or three minutes left to play and the game suddenly winnable again: do you stick with what worked, or do you go back to the lineup you trust to close 99 percent of your games?
On Wednesday, Rick Carlisle left the bench out there. The Mavericks lost 99-98 thanks to their reserves making several crucial mistakes in the final minutes. At around the three-minute mark, I grimaced when I realized this was Carlisle's plan. It would be hypocritical to criticize Carlisle only for the loss, but even right then, I had a strong feeling it wouldn't work. I hoped I was wrong. I wasn't. Now the Mavericks are only 1.5 games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely with two games against Golden State coming up.
Let's go through and chronicle exactly what happened in that failed fourth quarter.
5:44: Zaza Pachulia misses this layup.
2:34: Timeout. Rick Carlisle has a chance to make substitutions and chooses not to.
2:20: Down 95-93, Dirk Nowitzki misses an open 3-pointer that would have given Dallas the lead. The lineup is, at this moment, Pachulia, Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea.
2:05: Harris makes a key defensive strip of Kyrie Irving when he tries to make a move out of the post, getting the ball back for Dallas.
1:57: Harris misses a wide-open three. Once again, it would have given Dallas the lead. They still trail 95-93.
1:36: With Barea still on the floor, the Mavericks play zone. Irving makes a quick cut and finishes unopposed over Pachulia at the rim. The lead is 97-93 Cavaliers.
1:10: Pachulia is stripped (good play, not his fault) but Mavericks retain possession and Dirk hits a jumper.
0:35: J.J. Barea gets caught without a dribble and throws it to Pachulia. He leads him so the ball won't get picked off, but he led it so much that Pachulia thinks he's throwing it to someone behind him. Parsons can't save it. Turnover.
0:16: Harris and Pachulia do an excellent job "icing" Irving baseline (basically, they double team him off a pick-and-roll) and he throws a pass out of bounds.
0:06: Harris can't throw a decent entry pass to Dirk in the post for a potentially game-tying shot. This is absurd. Sure, Dirk maybe gets fouled, but this is still very frustrating. Irving hits two free throws and the game is over.
* * *
This is tough. I believe Deron Williams on the floor would have prevented two huge turnovers from your guards in the final minute, but if you sub him for Barea, you lose a penetrator, and if you sub him for Harris, you lose his solid defense on Irving.
Pachulia played well, but he didn't do anything to earn a spot back in the rotation in my eyes. Not with Golden State coming up next. Carlisle can give him minutes, sure, but the Warriors will roast his poor pick-and-roll defense alive. At least Lee gives you a fighting chance. In this game, I would have still put Lee back in the game with a couple minutes to play. But it's a tough decision either way.
The Mavericks didn't lose because of their rebounding, though. They lost because they shot under 30 percent on 3-pointers (if you ignore Williams' final banked prayer that didn't matter) and because they only had an offensive rating of 104. When you go small ball, you're going to give up rebounds. You're going to give up points. But you have to win by outscoring the other team. The Mavericks weren't good enough offensively, despite going small virtually the entire game, to outscore Cleveland, when their defense actually didn't do a bad job, all things considered!
There may be a chicken or the egg fallacy going on here, I'll concede that. The offense plays significantly better when it can quickly advance the ball across the half court on missed shots, and when you're constantly giving up offensive rebounds, that doesn't happen as often. So maybe the poor rebounding led to the bad offense. But that, in itself, sums up the entirety of the Mavericks' problems: by plugging up one weakness, you open up a gaping hole in another area. That's what happens when too many of your players are specialists who only really excel in one area.
If this team is going to die, I'd rather they do it with small ball, trying to score as many points as possible. At least that's fun and, more importantly, different from what they've done all season -- of which we have a 60-some game proven track record that what they've been doing doesn't work all that well.