- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- We all know Rick Carlisle did a sensational job coaching the Dallas Mavericks when he guided them to a title in 2011.
He's done an even better job this season.
It's not debatable.
The Mavs won a championship because Dirk Nowitzki proved he was one of the NBA's best closers, Shawn Marion played great defense, Jason Terry hit a bevy of clutch buckets and Jason Kidd provided leadership.
They were the ultimate team -- a group of guys who played beautiful basketball -- and every move Carlisle made seemingly worked.
Those Mavs would blow out these Mavs.
Look at the collection of players on this team -- an aging Dirk, who scored a season-high 33 points against the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night -- is the only player resembling a star.
It's a miracle the Mavs are even on the fringe of the playoff conversation, but that's where they are after a 109-102 overtime win over the Clippers that pulled them within one game of the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference's eighth seed with 11 to play.
"The spirit is high. It's really good," Carlisle said. "The guys are playing for something. They're playing to get back on the winning side. They're playing for a playoff spot. There's a lot of pride in the locker room. I'm proud to be a part of this group."
If we're honest, the Mavs remain in the playoff chase primarily because the Lakers are on the verge of becoming one of the biggest underachievers in the history of professional sports. They will earn that distinction if the Mavs or Utah Jazz surpass them in the season's final few weeks and claim the eighth seed.
The Mavs, 10-4 this month, have inserted themselves into the playoff conversation by going 22-13 since Jan. 9, when they stood at 13-23.
It was their worst record in a decade, and the Mavs had showed no tangible evidence they could win enough games to make the playoffs.
Most of us gave up on the Mavs' season weeks ago. Carlisle refused to let any player give up on himself, and he refused to let the team give up on the season.
No one would have blamed him. Or them.
After all, Dirk missed the season's first 27 games after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and they've had point guard issues all season. Darren Collison was replaced in the starting lineup twice by a pair of 37-year-old point guards -- Derek Fisher and Mike James -- before Carlisle told Collison he could be an impact player by coming off the bench.
Guess what? He's thrived. Collison doesn't like it, but he can't deny he's playing well off the bench.
Carlisle has also deftly handled the team through the rigors and adversity that accompany every 82-game regular season.
Everyone not named Dirk, Marion and Vince Carter has been miffed about his playing time at some point this season. Carlisle doesn't let it affect him.
The coach often approaches the player and lets him know why his playing time has been reduced, but the reaction has no impact on him. Sometimes, Carlisle lets a player figure it out for himself.
There's only one way to secure playing time on this team: Play well. Players on this team must earn their minutes every night. If they don't, they sit.
We're talking about a team that's started 15 different players this season, including guys such as Troy Murphy, Dominique Jones, Dahntay Jones and Derek Fisher, none of whom are still on the team.
"It's an eclectic roster," Carlisle said. "We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things. The coaching staff a lot of times has to mix and match and pull guys in and out, but these guys roll with it, and that's why we've been able to get some momentum.
"The way we're built this year, it just takes a higher level of thinking by everybody to understand what it's going to take for us to win."
See, Carlisle does whatever is best for the team each day. The moves don't always work out, which is among the reasons why the Mavs are still under .500 and their streak of 12 consecutive playoff appearances remains in jeopardy.
The Mavs entered Tuesday's game just 1-13 against the Western Conference's top five teams. Six times, they lost by more than 20 points.
Still, they're playing the best basketball when it matters most. San Antonio, Denver, Oklahoma City and Memphis are the only teams with better records than the Mavs since Jan. 9.
Dirk, while not dominating every night, has been considerably more consistent in the second half of the season. Carter has been outstanding off the bench, and O.J. Mayo has been a playmaker.
They have wins over playoff-caliber teams such as Boston, Memphis, Golden State, Brooklyn and Houston twice in the past two months.
Now, you can add a win over the Clippers.
The Lakers' shoddy play has created an opportunity. For the first time this season, the Mavs seem capable of taking advantage of it.
5dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com