There was nothing good about the Mavericks' Game 1 drilling at the hands of the Thunder last Saturday, but the blowback to Justin Anderson's limited role was clear. Anderson played well but only earned four minutes in the first half as the Mavericks struggled to match Oklahoma City's athleticism. Anderson wouldn't have solved everything, but it was clear he needed a larger role, something Rick Carlisle acknowledged in the days after the loss.
So why, then did Anderson only play 14 minutes? We were convinced Carlisle had learned his lesson, but Anderson couldn't get into the game for the entire third quarter, despite consistently making good plays. He did blow a couple of fast breaks and questionably passed up an open three, although he saved it with a stupidly good around-the-back pass. The several possessions he spent guarding Kevin Durant were fantastic, particularly given the Mavericks had no other options when Wesley Matthews went to the bench. Most importantly, Anderson made a defensive substitution at the end of the game and saved the game by blocking Kevin Durant.
The easy solution was to assume Carlisle was ignoring Anderson again, opting for veterans over unproven rookies despite everything. I don't think it's that simple. Instead, between Deron Williams' injury and Matthews' defense on Durant, Carlisle was backed into a corner. Before we talk about potential solutions, here's the dilemma:
Every lineup in the third quarter
12:00 to 7:24: Williams-Felton-Matthews-Nowitzki-Pachulia
This was Game 2's starting lineup and the lineup which played the most minutes all season. Carlisle trusts these five players together. With that said, it quickly became clear that Zaza Pachulia is still a shell of his early season self and is damn near unplayable. Salah Mejri entered earlier than Carlisle intended to make subs.
7:24 to 5:43: Williams-Felton-Matthews-Nowitzki-Mejri
Immediately after Mejri entered, Williams makes a layup and severely reaggravated his sports hernia. Throughout the game, he had been trying to avoid jumping off one leg, but he had to on this play. For the next minute and a half, Williams was visibly limping up and down the court, unable to fully extent his legs for a sprint. After back-to-back turnovers, Carlisle was forced to take a timeout to get him out of the game. He didn't return. (After the game, Williams said he regretted not taking the timeout himself immediately after the layup.)
For Mavericks fans clamoring for Anderson, this is where Carlisle should have gone back to his rookie. In the first quarter, this is exactly where Anderson made his first appearance. But in the first quarter, Anderson subbed in for Matthews. In this third quarter, despite missing shots, Carlisle justifiably decided Matthews's defense on Durant was too valuable to take out of the game. Instead, Carlisle opted for Devin Harris.
5:43 to 4:47: Felton-Harris-Matthews-Nowitzki-Mejri
Williams being forced out of the game screwed things up. At this stage of his career, Felton is a good two-guard with playmaking skills, but he struggles running point. If Carlisle had put Anderson at shooting guard, suddenly all the weight of the offense would have fallen on Felton, since neither Matthews nor Anderson can reliably initiate the offense. That's a bad idea. Harris isn't a point guard, but he's a capable in the pick-and-roll and was the only realistic option to take pressure off of Felton with Williams and Barea injured.
Carlisle might have considered Anderson at the two with Williams or J.J. Barea at point, because both are stronger point guards. When Anderson was in the starting five, it was with Barea, after all. But with Felton, Carlisle needed Harris.
4:47 to 2:57: Felton-Harris-Matthews-Powell-Mejri
It's time for Dirk Nowitzki to rest, and in for him came Dwight Powell. There were really no alternatives -- the four-guard lineup and Charlie Villanueva both failed miserably in Game 1. Well, no alternatives except one: Justin Anderson.
At the time, Oklahoma City was playing Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. You cannot blame Carlisle for playing traditionally, putting out two traditional big men in Powell and Mejri to match them. But this begs the question, is Powell actually a better rebounder than Anderson? Like, are we really, really sure he is?
Still, let's not get too caught up with this. Kanter would work Anderson in the post, and Adams has a seven-inch, 25-pound advantage on him. Anderson has played power forward a few times this season, but asking him to do it against one of Oklahoma City's very good big men is a huge task for a rookie.
It was right around now when I started seeing tweets asking where Anderson said. On a surface level, it looked like Carlisle was blatantly ignoring his rookie once again. But more than eight minutes into the quarter, with Matthews playing the defense he was, there simply wasn't a chance to sub him in. Next season, I expect big things from Anderson, but one challenge Carlisle will need to deal with is that Matthews and Anderson need strong playmakers around them, since neither of them do that well. There's a pretty obvious answer, and it's Chandler Parsons playing small ball four, one of the many reasons why Dallas will do anything they can to bring him back this summer. But now we're getting ahead of ourselves. Next lineup!
3:40: Kevin Durant enters the game at power forward
Carlisle could have countered with Anderson here. When it happened, I thought he should have. (The Mavericks did not substitute during this break in action.)
NOW you go Anderson. match them small and keep the tempo slow. the Mavs can do this. https://t.co/A2U7gBulYv— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) April 19, 2016
2:57 to 0:00: Felton-Harris-Matthews-Nowitzki-Mejri
In a crucially important playoff game, Carlisle instead went immediately back to Nowitzki. Felton and Matthews both played the entire third quarter, but it was hard to take them out. Without a real point guard and without a playmaking wing, Anderson didn't have the right mix of skills.
12:00: Anderson starts the fourth quarter
Matthews finally took a break to begin the final frame, and Anderson was his replacement. At this point, Matthews and Anderson are the only players who will play small forward, something that happened pretty regularly down the stretch of the regular season, too. The bigger question is how Matthews and Anderson can coexist.
The solution is clear: start Anderson.
The Thunder have big men who could punish Anderson at small ball four, but Matthews and Anderson can survive a wing pairing with a strong point guard at the top. If Williams can start the game again, even if he doesn't finish it, Anderson should return to the starting five. Felton will likely finish, of course, and that's completely fine. But starting Anderson is the only way to get him more minutes, before you're forced to put Felton back at point guard and take Dirk Nowitzki out of the game (who also creates shots and space).
If Anderson had started that third quarter, he could have joined Pachulia as the first sub out of the game (for Felton) or exited with about six minutes to go. That still leaves him free to spell Matthews at the beginning of the fourth. Admittedly, I'm talking about these rotations as if they're concrete, and they're not. Head coaches always have to react to what's happening on the floor, and perhaps he intended to sub Matthews out much sooner before it became an impossibility. But entering the second half with this substitution plan wouldn't have been a bad idea.
Anderson started seven straight games towards the end of the year, so clearly Carlisle is comfortable with it. The situations were different then, but Anderson has a dynamic highlight ability that warrants more than 14 minutes per night, and putting him in the starting five is the easiest way to play Anderson next to Matthews, instead of only subbing in for him.
It's not about a "fast start" or "because he deserves it" or "because he shows more heart." This is just the simplest solution to more playing time, which he does deserves, because he does show heart!
After winning the last game, I'd understand if Carlisle doesn't want to change the starting lineup. If you see Anderson sit for long stretches, this is the process Carlisle will be going through. With a limited, depleted roster, Carlisle only has so many options available at his disposal. Sometimes, it's just not as simple as "playing someone more minutes," no matter how well Anderson has performed.