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Rick Carlisle's best work? Nothing tops title run

4/2/2013

DALLAS -- There is a school of thought that this season represents Rick Carlisle’s best work during his five-year coaching tenure in Dallas.

No question Carlisle deserves credit for a job well done. After all, the Mavericks were essentially left for dead when they were 10 games under .500 in mid-January and many times since then.

The Mavs managed to pull themselves back into the playoff picture, thanks in large part to Carlisle pressing buttons to try to squeeze every bit of potential out of this patchwork roster.

“We’re under .500,” Carlisle said dismissively, “so we haven’t done that good of a job.”

That’s humility for the sake of staying in the moment. Carlisle has done a heck of a job to keep this flawed team fighting while constantly fidgeting with the lineup and rotation to give the Mavs the best possible chance of winning.

But a better job than the 2011 title run? C’mon, man.

“Winning a championship is always the best coaching job,” Mark Cuban said. “Period, end of story.”

Maybe that’s simplifying things too much, but that was a historically excellent coaching job that Carlisle and his staff did during the 2011 postseason, which started with nobody taking the Mavs seriously as contenders and ended with a championship parade in downtown Dallas.

Think about the gauntlet the Mavs had to get through to win that title. They beat Kobe Bryant’s two-time defending champion Lakers, sweeping arguably the best coach in pro sports history into retirement. They gave Kevin Durant’s Thunder a clutch clinic to delay what could be a decade of Western Conference dominance for OKC. And they beat LeBron James’ Heat, a feat that might not be accomplished in a playoff series for quite some time, if ever, depending on whether the NBA’s premier player opts to stay in Miami for the rest of his career.

That’s a miraculous run by a lone-star team that was a popular first-round upset pick.

There were plenty of examples of coaching genius by Carlisle and his staff – headlined by two assistants, defensive coordinator Dwane Casey and offensive coordinator Terry Stotts, who were hired away as head coaches.

Start with the psychological wisdom of owning the Mavs’ 23-point collapse after Game 4 in Portland. This wasn’t just an empty it’s-always-the-coach’s-fault declaration. Carlisle made a point to fall on the sword for failing to make adjustments to get the ball out of Brandon Roy’s hands during the Blazers guard’s spectacular fourth quarter, an admission that reinforced a tone of accountability in the Mavs’ locker room and prevented a potentially catastrophic meltdown from having a carryover effect.

That was the last time during those playoffs that Carlisle’s strategy was questioned. Heck, the Mavs lost only three more games during that run.

How about the decision to dust off Corey Brewer when Game 1 in Los Angeles seemed to be getting away from the Mavs? Brewer, a benchwarmer on that team, earned every penny Cuban paid him during his high-energy, high-impact eight minutes that turned around that game and changed that series against the Lakers.

One of the primary reasons the Mavs were able to sweep a team practically nobody gave them a chance of beating was because of their success with an unconventional lineup. With Brendan Haywood serving as the defensive backbone in this particular lineup, Dirk Nowitzki and a few second-unit scoring threats (Jason Terry, J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic) lit up the Lakers. Phil Jackson never figured out a way to slow down the Barea/Nowitzki high pick-and-pop with Terry and Stojakovic spacing the floor with scorching 3-point shooting.

The defensive game plan that turned James, the NBA’s most dominant force, into a confused, timid player in the Finals was just as genius. Part of that was the bold move of starting Barea at shooting guard after the Heat took a 2-1 series lead, a decision that ensured that DeShawn Stevenson could come off the bench with fresh legs and ferocity to spell Shawn Marion as head of the snake against James.

We could go on and on. Suffice to say it’s silly to think that a fight for .500 – no matter how flawed the team, no matter that a Coach of the Year case can be made for Carlisle if the Mavs make the playoffs – is more impressive than one of the greatest coaching jobs in NBA history.