OKLAHOMA CITY -- J.J. Barea doing some of his best pest work against Russell Westbrook, prompting the Thunder superstar to pick up a pair of technical fouls in separate incidents during the first half, managing to provide some entertainment to a game that was missing all five Dallas Mavericks starters.
And that might not have even been the best bout of the day in Bricktown.
OK, so Rick Carlisle vs. Wesley Matthews didn’t really happen. But Matthews was definitely in a fighting mood when informed Wednesday morning that he wouldn’t be suiting up against Oklahoma City.
“I saw red,” Matthews said before watching the Mavs’ bench players get blown out 108-89. “I did a lot of cussing, but I don’t think it was at him. I think [assistant coach Jamahl] Mosley intercepted me before it got to that.”
Matthews, who earned the nickname “Iron Man” in Portland, wasn’t the only mad Maverick the morning after Dallas’ overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Carlisle also made the call to rest three other starters – Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Deron Williams -- and none of them was exactly thrilled.
They shouldn’t have been surprised. Carlisle made a similar call a week ago, sitting all the starters except for Parsons in New Orleans the night after Dallas’ double-overtime win over the Sacramento Kings. The Mavs still managed to beat the Pelicans, but the Thunder represents a quantum leap up in competition.
Carlisle is as competitive as anyone, but it’s part of his job description to consider the grand scheme during the course of an 82-game regular season, especially with 18 games on the schedule this month for the Mavs, who are in the midst of playing five times in seven nights.
There are certainly extenuating circumstances. Nowitzki is doing something very few before him have: playing at a high level at the old age of 37. Parsons (hybrid microfracture on his right knee) and Matthews (ruptured left Achilles tendon) are still in the rehab process after undergoing surgeries that could be considered career threatening. Williams’ health was a huge issue in Brooklyn, and he’s dealt with nagging hamstring, ankle and calf injuries this season.
Carlisle consults with head athletic trainer Casey Smith, but it’s ultimately the coach’s call on which regulars will rest and when. Feedback from the players isn’t part of the decision-making process, to put it politely.
“Hell no. No,” Carlisle said. “I’ll say this about our guys: They always want to play. They really do. Wes Matthews, he’s difficult when it comes to this stuff. He and I have been close to a couple of fistfights, but hey, that’s all right. I like guys that are battlers, but we have a big picture to consider here.
“With this hectic stretch, I’m a moment-to-moment person, but you’ve got to look at larger compartments of time to be prudent with how to approach this.”
Carlisle figured that he’d give his starters a game off, whether they liked it or not, at some point during this five-game stretch. That was before the “red flag” of an overtime game, which resulted in Nowitzki playing 38 minutes and Matthews, Parsons and Williams all playing more than 40.
“If guys had played their normal minutes, the conversation may be way different,” Carlisle said.
In Pop-like fashion, Carlisle pulled the plug on those four in the morning -- and center Zaza Pachulia was a late scratch due to a sore right Achilles -- but the sitting starters didn’t get a day off. These aren’t really rest days as much as they are opportunities to get in strength and conditioning work that’s too strenuous to do on a typical game day.
That quartet went through an intense workout with Mavs athletic performance director Jeremy Holsopple in the Skirvin Hilton Hotel weight room. Williams and Matthews played a relatively intense two-on-two game against Mosley and assistant coach Darrell Armstrong before the game. Parsons and Nowitzki competed against each other in several pregame shooting contests.
(Parsons wants the record to reflect that he won every one of those shooting contests against the NBA’s sixth all-time leading scorer. That perhaps could be considered a sign that Nowitzki really did need a night off.)
Parsons and Nowitzki joked around as they went through their pregame work, but neither considered sitting out against a Western Conference contender to be a laughing matter. Nowitzki at least understands the logic, though.
“It is what it is,” Nowitzki said. “We’ve got five games in seven nights, tough games at that. Obviously, if you make it up to the players, we’d all be playing. They didn’t make it up for discussion, so we’ll just have to suck it up and trust the coach that he knows what he’s doing.”
Carlisle wants to win every night, but that’s not the priority with this roster. His job is ultimately to figure out how to help the Mavs peak in the playoffs, and rest is a significant factor in that formula.
That’s the only way the Mavs can put up a fight when it really matters.