The Mavericks rely on Rick Carlisle to make up for so many of the team's flaws. His genius is never more glaringly obvious than when he is bad.
Dallas' Game 1 loss to the Thunder on Saturday was historically bad, and Carlisle blamed himself for the 108-70 loss.
"I've got to get these guys ready to play," Carlisle said. "It's pretty clear. We had some struggles early. We were not the team we've been the past two weeks and I take a great deal of responsibility for that. I gotta do a better job getting ready for Game 2."
This is a known Carlisle tactic. When games go so poorly that someone must take the blame -- as Monday's did, with the Mavericks scoring the fewest points and shooting the lowest field goal percentage (29.8 percent) in franchise playoff history -- Carlisle chooses himself to fall on the sword. Sometimes, it's just that, a tactic to give the preying media someone to pin the blame on, even as we all know full well that the players screwed the game up without Carlisle's meddling. On Monday, though, the blame resting on Carlisle was deserved.
In the days leading up to the Mavericks' first round series, most of the talk around Dallas involved their notable talent gap. Oklahoma City boasts two of the world's top five or six best players, while you'd need a strong case to say the Mavericks have one in the top 20. It's sad that the 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki is their candidate, regardless where he falls in a hypothetical ranking of the NBA's best. Injuries to Chandler Parsons and, more recently, David Lee and J.J. Barea has only weakened the Mavericks further.
Despite that, Carlisle led the team to the playoffs, engineering a slower-paced style that inexplicitly turned a poor defending Dallas roster into one of the league's best for a couple weeks. It wasn't sustainable, but with seven wins in eight games, it was enough for Dallas to successfully make their playoff push and secure the No. 6 seed.
It was easy -- too easy -- to expect the same thing would happen in Game 1. Surely Carlisle, still sparkling ever so slightly from the magical playoffioso spell he cast last month, would sniff out some weakness or orchestrate an elaborate plan that would give Dallas a viable path to competitiveness with the otherwise superior Thunder. Nobody could imagine what that plan was, because the Mavericks' roster was so desperately mediocre, but surely Carlisle couldn't think of something.
We should have known. What Carlisle ended up with, hampered by the roster that he was dealt, was mundane. With the starting lineup, Carlisle went to J.J. Barea and Salah Mejri, the latter who had shown up big several times during the season series. The lineup generated decent looks but couldn't hit them, trailing 15-5 by the time Carlisle made substitutions.
Carlisle also rode with his veterans in the first half, a fallback move many coaches make in tight spots. Justin Anderson, critical to the Mavericks' late playoff push, played just four first half minutes. More damning, despite less outrage, was the 11 minutes given to a cooked Zaza Pachulia. In a roundabout way, Carlisle admitted his mistake in not playing him more, saying his role going forward would "obviously" be larger.
"We played veterans predominantly during the Utah game, which was the biggest game of the year," Carlisle. "He's obviously going to more involved going forward. I loved the way he finished the game."
These were mistakes. Players make plenty. You make them in your own profession. Carlisle alone couldn't have altered the course of Game 1 -- the Thunder were that good, the Mavericks were that bad, and the rims Dallas shot at were damaged irreversibly. But once Carlisle pushed the wrong buttons, it was glaringly obvious. Other teams can thrive in spite of bad coaches, but the Mavericks have been propped up by Carlisle all season. They can't afford an off day from him ... or they're embarrassed in a 38-point defeat.
The sad reality is that Rick Carlisle probably can't save the Mavericks, no matter what he does. They're missing too many pieces and spread too thin around a singular, aging star who can no longer carry a team single-handedly. The Thunder were too locked in defensively and too talented offensively to truly be bothered by Dallas. But without Carlisle's best effort, they can't even get close. And that, at least, isn't his fault.