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The Mavericks might be out-manned, but with Rick Carlisle at the helm they are never out of the fight

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The warlock of the West has gotten so much out of less talented teams. Now that he has two superstars, anything is possible.

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In retrospect, the most disappointing part of Plan Powder is that it hardly seems like it would have mattered if it had ever worked, back when the Dallas Mavericks tried it year after year. In all likelihood, Deron Williams, DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, Nicolas Batum, and so on, were not much of an answer to the Mavs’ post-2011 problems. Then again, maybe the Mavericks just got unlucky.

Dirk Nowitzki was only 32 years old when he won the title, he played another eight years, and he was never again on a particularly good team. In fact, I don’t think any post-2011 compares favorably to any Mavericks team between 2001, Dirk’s first playoff experience, and 2011 itself. The end result was a very weird, very long farewell tour.

They were always decent – the one time they missed the playoffs before 2017, they had a .500 record and Dirk missed 30 games – and they were never dangerous. It seems weird to me that Dirk started “farewelling” when he was years younger than I am now. At the time, I was contented enough with the ring, and happy enough to see Dirk get a few more playoff games to add to his legacy.

So now, for the first time since then, the Mavericks are back in the playoffs. It’s the first time without Dirk since 1990, and whenever the win their first series, it will be the first time since 1988. Nonetheless, they find themselves in a familiar position. The other team is the heavy favorite. They may not be happy just to be there – what competitors are – but they could be, and it’d be understandable. They’re clearly out-manned and outgunned and we mostly want to get them some seasoning so the next time around isn’t the first time.

Here’s the weird thing, though. Despite the fact that the Mavericks never won another playoff series after 2011 – despite the fact that they only once came even close – what all of those first round exists taught me, strange as it may seem, is what a great playoff coach Rick Carlisle is. I already know that of course.

But let me just underscore it here. If you are an opposing team and coach, you do not want Rick Carlisle to have a long time to think about how to beat you, and you specifically. And I can say that not because of any surprising series wins he pulled off – there weren’t any- but entirely in spite of that.

First things first. It’s only with hindsight that you can sometimes move past people talking themselves into guys in the moment, to see them as they really were. Let me give you the starting lineup for Game One of each of the 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016 Mavs playoff teams.

  • 2012: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Delonte West, Brendan Haywood
  • 2014: Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion, Samuel Dalembert, José Calderón
  • 2015: Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler, Rajon Rondo
  • 2016: Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Salah Mejri

Key reserves, at various points, included Richard Jefferson, Amar’e Stoudemire (?!?), Zaza Pachulia, Charlie Villanueva, and Ray Felton. Many Mavericks fans still believe that they would have won one of those series if DeJuan Blair hadn’t been suspended. When you look at these names, however, you can see the truth. It’s amazing they were ever there at all.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks, consistently lower seeded, never had the luck of playing just a good, regular season team. Every single one of those series was against a team that had at least two players that would be on anyone’s all-decade team for the 00s.

In 2012, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, with James Harden off the bench with Serge Ibaka playing 40 minutes. In 2014, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker, with Manu off the bench. In 2015, it was James Harden and Dwight Howard with Trevor Ariza and the JET providing spacing and a young Clint Capela off the bench. And in 2016 it was Westbrook, Ibaka, and Durant again, but with Steven Adams playing next to them. Those aren’t mismatches, those are teams playing almost a different sport from each other. Meanwhile, Dirk just kept getting older – many of us do.

So, from one perspective, what happened is exactly what you would expect to happen. Outside of one seven game series with the Spurs, in 2014, every series looks like a walk. They lost to the Thunder 0-4, the Rockets 1-4, and the Thunder again 1-4. But if you look closer, you see something different. Take the Thunder sweep for example. Absolutely, the better team won, and they won like it looked like they should win, on paper.

But if you watched the series, you know it wasn’t like that. Game 3 was a Thunder walk, 95-79. But Game 1 was 99-98. Game 2 was 102-99. And Game 3 was 103-97. A few more breaks, it could have been three one Dallas. It couldn’t possibly have happened. But it almost did, and that’s Rick Carlisle – as well as a little Dirk Nowitzki.

For me, of course, the Spurs series stands out most in my memory. That 2014 team may or may not have been the most talented – probably “may” – but they were certainly the best team in the league. In fact, they were one of the greatest teams of all time. After they lost three games to the Mavericks, they would lose three games the whole rest of the Western Conference playoffs. They would beat the Heatles, in their prime, 4-1 in the Finals, and it wouldn’t be close: 110-95, 111-92, 107-86, 104-87. And they, too were coached by a master, Gregg Popovich. But with a few more breaks, the Mavericks could have beaten them with a team that gave José Calderón the fourth most minutes.

Actually, though, I think of the Rockets series at least as often. That was the Rondo year, when the Mavericks made their first bid for greatest offense of all time, with Jameer Nelson at point, then crashed the truck into the Rondo tree. That was a 4-1 Rockets win, but if you were there you remember that the Mavericks benched (and evicted) Rondo after Game 2 and suddenly took off. In Game 3, the Rondoless Mavs saw Monta and Dirk both score 34, on better than 50% shooting. They lost 130-128, but it was a damn close thing. They won the next one 121-109, which means they were a hairsbreadth away from tying it at 2-2, even with Rondo. They lost in the fifth game 103-94, but that doesn’t give the whole picture.

Even in 2014, it would have been a five game series without Vince Carter’s famous shot – series in the mirror are closer than they appear. And even the next year, when Dirk was 37 – when they started Wes Matthews, J.J. Barea, and Salah Mejri in Game One and Wes, Zaza, Ray Felton, and Justin Anderson in Game 5, against KD, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Adams – they got their licks in.

Now, they find themselves in a situation at once wonderfully familiar and wonderfully new. Again, they are the seventh seed, again they face a titanic assemblage of talent they cannot match. You’re talking about Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and a cruise ship’s worth of tough, talented veterans: Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Marcus Morris, Pat Beverley. Pat Bev didn’t play in Game 2 of course but come on. After Luka and KP, the Mavs don’t have one guy who has ever been more than a decent role player somewhere else.

Yet once again, it’s not only close – a tied series – it’s closer than it looks. I’m not the kind of person who would say they’d have won for sure if Kristaps Porzingis hadn’t been ejected in game one. But obviously they could have – and ended up 2-0. Meanwhile, as much as no Mavs lead ever feels safe, game two was not close and rarely even got all that close. And Rick Carlisle is still a wizard at figuring out how to compete with the team that is in front of him. So far, he’s giving Doc Rivers fits.

In the end, this may well be another short series. They are out-manned and outgunned. They can’t expect the Trey Burkes of the world to keep playing like they did last night. And what usually happens when young teams play veteran teams – especially more talented veteran teams – is that the little mistakes add up. KP’s ejection was ridiculous, but he could have remembered he had one tech already. Luka Doncic could have easily avoided at least two fouls and been on the court helping them put the game away. They didn’t need him, but they might have. They can’t keep making those mistakes and survive.

The things that are different this time around, however, are the things that matter. For one thing, they might not lose – this isn’t a veteran team hanging in with guts alone, it’s a team with two young stars, one an absurd talent. For the other? For the first time in 9 years, this playoff series isn’t about the past, it’s about the future. This one isn’t about old dogs trying new tricks, it’s about new – well, humans – figuring out what they can do. And unlike the fading supernovas of yesteryear, whatever happens next, this team can get a lot better. This could be just the beginning.