CLEVELAND -- The rest of this frustrating season isn’t just about a quest to cling to one of the Western Conference’s last playoff spots for the sputtering, .500 Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavs also must use the final month of the regular season to help determine the direction of the franchise’s annual summer roster makeover.
Heck, it’s tough enough for coach Rick Carlisle to figure out which five players he wants to start from half to half, much less game to game.
First, the obvious: The eighth-place Mavs’ lead over the Utah Jazz, who beat the full-strength Cavs despite star Gordon Hayward sitting a couple of nights earlier, is down to 1½ games after Dallas dropped its sixth game in seven tries. Considering their next two foes -- the Jazz face the sorry Phoenix Suns, while the Mavs meet the historically great Golden State Warriors -- the Mavs will likely see their lead trimmed down even more by the time their heads hit the pillows Friday night.
But there’s also a major issue concerning the bigger picture for the Mavs. Many in the organization want the final month to be a test run for a Dirk Nowitzki-Chandler Parsons center-power forward duo.
The thought process: Target a two-way small forward such as Harrison Barnes or Nicolas Batum during the summer to add some size and versatility to the lineup. If they successfully hit on Plan A in free agency -- and you don’t have to tell Mavs fans just how big an if that is after the last four years -- good luck trying to stop Dallas from lighting up the scoreboard. Of course, the Mavs better score a whole bunch if a 38-year-old Dirk is the backbone of the defense.
But how can Carlisle commit to the Dirk-as-center experiment down the stretch after the spanking the Mavs’ small-ball unit received in this loss?
“It’s not a cure-all,” said Nowitzki, who matched reserve center David Lee with a team-high 20 points against the Cavs but grabbed only four rebounds in 35 minutes. “What, did you think we were going to win every game now? It’s going to work sometimes; sometimes you’ve got to adjust. Our coach is willing to do whatever it takes. It’s that simple.”
The Mavs’ small-ball look, which Carlisle started for the second straight game, had been very successful in limited doses this season. Lineups featuring Nowitzki, Parsons and three guards had outscored opponents by 52 points in 113 minutes entering Wednesday night, according to nbawowy.com data, with a sizzling 66.0 true shooting percentage more than making up for the rebounding and defensive deficiencies. Going small worked spectacularly Monday night in Charlotte, when the Mavs ended their five-game skid and snapped the Hornets’ seven-game winning streak.
But the Mavs’ small-ball warts weren’t just exposed by the Cavs. They were ripped off, with rubbing alcohol splashed on the open sores.
Cleveland had a 36-18 rebounding advantage and a 22-0 edge in second-chance points when demoted center Zaza Pachulia was finally summoned off the Dallas bench with 1:28 remaining in the third quarter. Cleveland power forward Kevin Love, who finished with 23 points and 18 rebounds, had almost single-handedly matched the Mavs on the glass at that point.
The Mavs trailed by 16 when Pachulia finally checked into the game. And a 19-2 Dallas run in the second quarter, which kept the game from being a blowout by halftime, occurred with Lee at center and Nowitzki and Parsons playing their traditional forward positions, prompting Carlisle to start Lee instead of guard Raymond Felton in the second half.
It definitely didn’t help matters that Parsons and point guard Deron Williams -- who had both hit better than 50 percent from 3-point range in the limited small-ball sample sizes -- both had off shooting nights (combined 4-of-14 from the floor, with Williams’ meaningless bucket at the buzzer the lone made 3 among their five attempts). But the biggest problem was that the Mavs’ biggest fear about their small lineup came true: Dallas got physically dominated.
“It’s not going to work every night,” said Parsons, who had six points, five rebounds and a season-high 10 assists in 36 minutes. “It’s a good lineup. It’s a good option to have, but it’s going to work sometimes [and] it’s not going to work sometimes.”
The Mavs had a chance to tie the game or take the lead twice in the last minute. But those possessions resulted in turnovers by reserve guards J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, who were critical parts of the comeback. (Carlisle called the last turnover “unlucky” due to referee Danny Crawford swallowing his whistle while Kyrie Irving clutched and held Nowitzki before stealing Harris’ pass with 2.9 seconds remaining.)
But the game was only close because Pachulia changed it after finally getting a chance to take off his warmups. He scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds in 13 minutes, providing a physical presence that Dallas desperately needed.
It took a five-game losing streak, when the offense sputtered when Pachulia negatively impacted the spacing, for Carlisle to switch to the small starting lineup. Should he abandon it after one loss and go back to the traditional starting five with Pachulia manning the paint?
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Pachulia said, managing a chuckle despite the seriousness of the Mavs’ circumstances.
It’s Carlisle’s decision to make, for better or for worse, for the Mavs’ playoff hopes or their summer forecast.