The crucible that is the late rounds of the NBA playoffs has a way of making coaches look foolish. The past two coach of the year winners, Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau, were criticized this postseason for their teams' scoring difficulties in late-game situations during the conference finals. The previous honoree, Mike Brown, was fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers after the 2010 playoffs in large part because of a lack of creativity in his late-game offense.
During this postseason, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has proved to be the exception. While Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks' veterans have played a role in that, Carlisle and his coaching staff deserve credit for an impressive performance throughout the 2011 playoffs.
Carlisle is one victory away from taking a team given only even odds by ESPN experts of winning its opening-round matchup to an unexpected championship. Dallas has gotten here by raising its level of play in the playoffs. With an older team, Carlisle hasn't been able to extend his starters' minutes like counterpart Erik Spoelstra has done with Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Still, the Mavericks have been better at both ends of the floor.
Given how dominant Nowitzki has been in the playoffs, and that he has quality shooters around him, the fact that Dallas leads the league in postseason offensive rating seems unsurprising. During the regular season, however, the lack of a second prolific scorer was one reason the Mavericks ranked just eighth in the NBA in per-possession scoring. Thanks in part to a 2-3 zone implemented by Dwane Casey, one of several excellent assistants at Carlisle's disposal, Dallas won just as much with defense in the regular season. The Mavericks' D has stepped up in the Finals in particular, holding Miami to 5.5 points per 100 possessions below its regular-season output.
In every series along the way, Carlisle can be credited with winning the battle of the sidelines, thanks to his ability to make adjustments and prepare his team. The task has been slightly different in each round.
Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Carlisle's biggest role might have been psychological. When Dallas blew a 23-point lead in Game 4 at the Rose Garden, the storyline back home was obvious: Here we go again. By keeping his team focused on the upcoming game, Carlisle helped the Mavericks shed the baggage of their early playoff exits in three of the previous four seasons. Dallas would win the next two games, including the clincher in front of a hostile Portland crowd.
The Mavericks' shocking sweep of the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers was keyed by the success Dallas enjoyed in the pick-and-roll game. In order to keep milking Jose Barea's ability to get to the basket, the coaching staff had to make adjustments in terms of offensive spacing. Those resulted in a barrage of open three-pointers in Games Three and Four as the Mavericks closed out the series.
In the Western Conference Finals, Dallas consistently managed to out-execute the Oklahoma City Thunder in close games. While the Thunder's offense was plagued by confusion during fourth quarters, the Mavericks manufactured good shot attempts. Carlisle also found small advantages, like offense-defense substitutions down the stretch, to help his team.
For all that success, Carlisle saved his best coaching job for the matchup with the Heat. His subtle tweaks over the course of the series have helped the Mavericks close the talent gap between the two teams. Dallas has played its best basketball since Carlisle made the bold move of changing his starting lineup and replacing DeShawn Stevenson with Barea, something a more conservative coach would never have done this late in the season. The switch has paid dividends for both players. Barea finally got going on offense in Game Five and provided critical second-half scoring, while Stevenson responded in a reserve role and had his best game of the series to key the Mavericks' Game Four win.
The decision by Carlisle to use Brian Cardinal as his backup for Nowitzki instead of Peja Stojakovic made less sense on the surface, but it too has worked out. While Dallas continues to struggle badly with Nowitzki on the bench, the Mavericks actually outscored Miami when Nowitzki rested in the first half of Game Four. On Thursday, Cardinal came through with an unexpected three-pointer, giving him more points than Stojakovic managed in the first three games of the series.
Equally important have been Dallas' Xs-and-Os adjustments. In Game Two, using a pair of staggered screens for Jason Terry helped get the Mavericks' sixth man open looks. The play has remained a staple of the offense throughout the series. During Game Four, Carlisle began putting Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion in more pick-and-rolls, taking advantage of Nowitzki's ability to keep his defender from providing help. Defensively, Dallas has been able to mix in zone defense at times to keep the Heat guessing, and has successfully moved defenders Marion, Jason Kidd and Stevenson around to match up with James and Wade.
The job isn't yet complete for Carlisle, not with Miami hosting the last two games of the Finals. Working in the Mavericks' favor is their tendency to play better over the course of series in this postseason. Dallas has been plenty effective in Games One-Three of its four matchups, going 8-3. In Game Four and beyond, however, the Mavericks have been nearly unbeatable: 7-1, with the lone loss requiring the historic Blazers comeback. That's a testament to the coaching the Dallas staff has done after series have started.
Even if it doesn't ultimately prove to be enough to win the series, expect the Mavericks' coaching staff to have an answer for whatever adjustments the Heat bring to the table in Games Six and Seven (if necessary). That's been the case all playoffs long.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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