Rick Carlisle is known as one of the best coaches in the game at making adjustments during the playoffs. Carlisle isn’t afraid to completely switch up his game plan and rotation based on how a certain series is going, and he always seems to be one step ahead of the opposition in terms of utilizing his lineup to its fullest potential. With the Mavericks trailing 2-0 in the opening round to the Rockets, you’d think Carlisle would pull out all the stops in a must-win Game 3.
Yet, looking at the Mavericks’ roster, there just aren’t many cards for Carlisle to play. And as much as Carlisle will try to cover up his team’s flaws, the roster construction will make it really hard for Dallas to get back in this series.
It’s hard to blame Mark Cuban for the roster having so many holes. He did a nice job in nabbing Monta Ellis at a time when Ellis was undervalued, and the Tyson Chandler trade he pulled off was a steal. He also nabbed a very useful rotation player in Al-Farouq Aminu on a minimum contract.
But Cuban saw his team’s biggest flaw early in the season. He understood it would be near impossible for his team to contend for a title playing defense with the roster as it was constructed. All of the pieces independently seemed good, but put together it wasn’t a championship group.
So Cuban swung for the fences and banked on a trade rejuvenating the career of Rajon Rondo. Rondo seemed like he would improve the defense dramatically, and Cuban was banking on Carlisle figuring out how to utilize Rondo creatively on offense to turn him into an asset on both ends. And even though it was a bumpy ride through the regular season, Dallas seemed to hold out hope that Rondo would find another gear in the playoffs.
That didn’t happen, as Rondo was a disaster in his two playoff games. His -34.3 net rating is second-worst among all players who have played two playoff games and at least five playoff minutes this year, per NBA.com. Rondo won’t get a chance to redeem himself in this series, as the Mavericks announced Wednesday that he’s out indefinitely with a back injury and Carlisle said the point guard won’t play another game in a Mavericks uniform.
Making matters even worse, Chandler Parsons will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury that’ll require surgery, depriving Dallas of its closest thing to a two-way wing player. It leaves Carlisle with the options of a good defensive wing who kills spacing in Aminu, a struggling Ellis who’s a defensive liability and a 34-year-old Richard Jefferson who has seen most of his skills deteriorate.
At point guard, Rondo had been a train wreck before the injury, but Carlisle’s other options in Game 2 were J.J. Barea and Raymond Felton, both defensive liabilities. When Chandler sits, the Mavericks have to try to get away with playing both Dirk Nowitzki and Amar’e Stoudemire at the same time, which just won’t cut it defensively over the long haul.
Houston finally realized in the second half of Game 2 that if Nowitzki and Stoudemire are playing together, forcing them to play defense on the same play would kill Dallas. Watch this 4-5 pick and roll with Josh Smith and Dwight Howard that was a staple of the fourth-quarter offense for Houston (via YouTube):
Dallas really has no good way to play this with two defenders as bad as Nowitzki and Stoudemire. Stoudemire probably stepped up too soon, but there’s no way Nowitzki can contain a well-thrown lob. And even if Stoudemire just sagged back or Nowitzki went under the screen (which are both probably more advisable than how it was played), Smith would have a full head of steam against a weak defender at the rim.
It’ll be interesting to see if Carlisle is bold enough to go without Nowitzki down the stretch of the next game. The best shot for the Mavericks might be playing Aminu at power forward with Chandler at center, and hoping the two of them combined inside can cover enough of the perimeter’s defensive mistakes. Obviously, the team would take a hit offensively, but they might be able to survive with the good ball movement it has shown at points this year. Benching Nowitzki would be hard and certainly wouldn’t happen if he has it going offensively, but if he struggles with his shot again like he did in Game 2, Carlisle might not have a choice.
Of course, playing Aminu inside defensively means he can’t guard James Harden. And with Rondo and Parsons sidelined, Aminu is the only player on Dallas who would seem to have a realistic shot of making life tough on the Rockets’ star.
If Devin Harris can return for Game 3, that could help the Mavericks a little. Harris had a career-best three-point shooting year and stretches the floor better than Barea while bringing some of the same things to the table. He isn’t a good defender, but he’s also not as small as Barea, making him less of a liability on that end.
But without Parsons and Rondo, Carlisle simply doesn’t have a lot of options to go to in this series. It doesn’t matter how good a coach is at making adjustments if he doesn’t have the roster to do so.