Do not give Rick Carlisle second chances. The Dallas Mavericks head coach, in his 13th season with the team, is facing a playoff opponent in back-to-back years for the first time — and it shows. That isn’t to say that his wizardry isn’t evident in any postseason appearance in previous years, but as the Mavericks face-off with the Los Angeles Clippers for the second time in nine months — with the Mavericks firmly ripping away homecourt advantage and halfway to advancing — it seems awfully clear the Mavericks have the upper hand on the bench.
We almost needed this reminder, since the Mavericks are making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in five years.. For better or worse the oft-prickly coach treats the regular season as a science experiment, testing hypotheses with rotations and schemes. It’s okay as a fan for it to feel maddening, like there is no end or reason.
Then this series happens.
It doesn’t hurt to have the best player in the series no doubt, but Carlisle’s fingerprints are on every off-ball action, every screen opening up Tim Hardaway Jr., each time they steal rest for Luka Doncic with a bench-heavy unit.
This is nothing new for Carlisle in Dallas. Give a chance for him and his staff to learn the blueprint of an opponent’s attack and he’ll come back with a counter to expose a new weakness, or a way to surprise an opponent. More often than not, they see immediate results:
We've seen how well Rick Carlisle makes adjustments from G1 to G2. Since 2011 Finals, Mavs are 4-2 in G2. This season when playing same opp BTB, Mavs are 5-2 winning last 5 (GS, LAC, POR, LAL, & CLE) by avg of 18 pts. G2 pre w/@LenoxOnHoops at 9. Tip w/Brad & me at 9:40 @ESPN1033— Chuck Cooperstein (@coopmavs) May 25, 2021
MFFLs will likely recall previous postseason adjustments that stole a win, or completely turned the tide in a series.
Last season the Mavericks were beat up entering their series with the Los Angeles Clippers, missing multiple key players even before Kristaps Porzingis left with an injury. To make matters worse they were facing a lengthy wing-heavy team designed to stop any perimeter action. So why not trot out recent addition Trey Burke, who barely played with the team leading into the series? Burke was a decent spark plug in the first three games of the series, playing 18 minutes per game. The iconic Game 4 is deservedly known for Luka’s Shot, so it’s easy to forget that Burke not only started but was a monster for 37 minutes — 25 points, five rebounds, two steals, and 4-of-5 shooting from three.
The Mavericks found themselves down deep in 2015 against the Houston Rockets, a season with so much promise quickly unraveling thanks to bad injury luck and, ahem, player issues. Down 0-3 and seemingly nothing to lose, Carlisle turned to Al-Farouq Aminu, who started just three regular season games that year. The combo forward was a monster, posting 16 points and 12 rebounds and hitting three three-pointers, in the only win of the series for the Mavericks.
It was a do or die moment for the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, facing the league-villain Miami Heat. They were down 2-1 after giving homecourt advantage back after Game 3 in Dallas. So why not just turn to future icon J.J. Barea on the biggest stage? Why not, when he started just two games all year and is uh...very small? We all know how this ends. Barea was a gamechanger (32 points, 10 assists, 5-of-8 from three in the final two games) and the Mavericks continued to find ways to challenge and lock up LeBron James and the Miami Heat on their way to the title.
These are all obvious lineup adjustments that represent just a fraction of the feel Carlisle has for a series format. It also leaves out what might be his most masterful coaching performance of his, or any coach’s, career.
The Mavericks now find themselves in a somewhat foreign position, their first time leading a playoff series in 10 years. They certainly haven’t played flawless basketball, with plenty to improve upon as they host a playoff game at the American Airlines Center for the first time in five years. This series hasn’t yet required Carlisle to flex massive adjustment muscles. His gameplan combined with Luka Doncic dissecting the Clippers defense like a surgeon has put the Mavericks in the driver’s seat.
Carlisle’s influence is found so far in subtler moments: using Luka off-ball more to initiate the offense, spacing Porzingis to pull Kawhi Leonard from the primary action, using Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson as screeners to make the switches tougher for defenders. Perhaps it was never more evident than in Game 2 when Dwight Powell made his first appearance in the game to start the fourth quarter. Both teams looked gassed, and Powell’s minutes’ burst with a new energy and increased the Mavericks’ lead in a crucial moment.
Take a scan through social media and comment sections on any given night throughout a season and you’ll see the grumblings of fans questioning Carlisle’s decision making. Whether it is after what feels like the 300th starting lineup change, his clinical approach to subbing and rotations, or a short leash (or quite simply no leash) for young players. It is common to see questions of whether the Mavericks should replace the longest tenured Dallas Mavericks coach.
A series like this should silence those critics.
Here’s the game 3 preview podcast, Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you can’t see the embed below “More from Mavs Moneyball”, click here. And if you haven’t yet, subscribe by searching “Mavs Moneyball podcast” into your favorite podcast app.