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Monday, June 13, 2011
Updated: June 14, 12:51 PM ET
Rick Carlisle bends but doesn't break

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

MIAMI -- A raised championship trophy Sunday night on the Miami Heat's floor culminated a playoff run that early on included coach Rick Carlisle assuming blame for not changing course in the 23-point collapse in Portland and closed with him deflecting credit for since having made all the right moves.

Champagne-soaked owner Mark Cuban succinctly described the performance of his third-year coach.

"Rick coached his ass off," Cuban said. "And there was no question he was the best coach in the playoffs."
Rick Carlisle
Mavs players give credit to coach Rick Carlisle for pushing all the right buttons during their run to the NBA championship.

In the case of the 2010-11 champion Dallas Mavericks, a rigid coach allowed himself to become more flexible, to listen to his core veterans and to allow them to take ownership. And the players repaid him by sticking with the program and standing behind him.

Together they achieved a level of greatness that not coach nor players nor franchise had experienced before (although Carlisle won a title as a backup guard for the 1986 Boston Celtics).

"He pushes us to the limit," said DeShawn Stevenson, a veteran who always rolled with Carlisle's punches, whether it meant he was the starting shooting guard, the 12th man or, as he became in the NBA Finals, a reserve small forward. "With our team and the players we have, we have veteran players where we understand it's a goal and the goal is bringing back a trophy, and we don't have guys that are looking for individual stats."

After the Game 3 loss at home to the Heat that put the Mavs behind in the series for a second time, Carlisle made a bold change to the starting lineup, a bold move rarely seen by a team in the Finals and one that some dubbed an act of desperation.

Carlisle inserted J.J. Barea into the starting five to add another playmaker, an offensive boost, and the jitterbug guard thrived. So, too, did Stevenson, the starting shooting guard whom Carlisle decided would better help the team as the backup small forward to ease Shawn Marion's burden defending LeBron James.

Dallas never lost again. After the Game 4 victory, the first of three in a row to beat the Heat, Terry lauded his coach for coming to a conclusion and then being decisive about it.

"He's doing a phenomenal job. He's done that throughout these playoffs," Terry said. "He knows his team. He knows the beat of this team. And then when we need a spark, he's willing to make the adjustment and make a change. It's just very gutsy. It's very classy and, again, he's doing a phenomenal job."

And so out -- along with the notion that these Mavericks would be one and done -- is the notion that Carlisle would also be done in Dallas. Not the lone championship coach in the franchise's 31-year history. He has one more season on his contract and should have every expectation of an extension. Cuban rewarded Avery Johnson, the man Carlisle replaced, with a five-year extension after Johnson took the team to the 2006 Finals.

The Mavs' celebratory owner declined to talk about business matters Sunday night but acknowledged how well the team came together under Carlisle.

"I learned chemistry matters, that it's a team game," Cuban said. "That you have to have players that believe in each other and trust each other and trust your coach. And that's a process. It doesn't happen overnight."

During the Finals, the normally stoic Carlisle turned increasingly emotional in choosing his words to describe his team.

"This is a special team," Carlisle said. "This is the most special team that I've ever been around, because it's not about what you can't do; it's about what you can do. It's not about what your potential shortcomings are; it's what we could accomplish as a group together. And it was just phenomenal to be around them."

Carlisle -- though he coached with and demanded that his team play with a stern disposition -- deserves credit for giving his players, particularly Jason Kidd, more freedom to operate within in his system and the ability to voice their opinions, as they did twice in convincing Carlisle to use Stevenson as a starter.

For this team, the bond started in the offseason. The 2010 playoffs ended badly, a mental and physical first-round undressing by the San Antonio Spurs. Fractures between coach and players seemed evident.

In the summer, Carlisle opened lines of communication with Marion, sharing his vision of him coming off the bench; with Caron Butler and his idea that fewer minutes would make him more productive. He continued to work with Kidd to develop a better on-court relationship, to understand when the coach needed to rein in control and when he needed to trust Kidd to take over.

"He's challenged us in ways. Sometimes he's backed off. Sometimes he's letting J-Kidd run the show," Nowitzki said. "Sometimes he feels like things are not going the way he wants to and he's clamping down a little more. So I think that was the challenge the first two years, to find a good mix between play calls and freedom and still play enough defense to win.

"And I just think he found a good mix and he found all the right buttons to motivate us every single night to get to this spot."

The ultimate test came when Nowitzki sprained his right knee Dec. 27 and Butler ruptured his right patellar tendon on New Year's Day. Without its top two players, Dallas lost six in a row, and it felt like the walls were closing in.

The championship goal set during training camp seemed to be slipping through the Mavs' fingers, and with injuries, it seemed out of their control to recapture the chemistry.

But they trusted. They believed. They persevered. And now Carlisle has his first ring as head coach and his players have theirs.

"Going through the journey of those injuries made us a better team," Kidd said. "We had to do a lineup change [before the playoffs] and then we did the lineup change during the Finals and we didn't skip a beat.

"We just kept playing. That just shows the character of this team."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.