DALLAS, TX — Wednesday night’s proceedings in Dallas were, at least superficially, all about DeAndre Jordan. It was the mug of the Mavericks’ betrayer that ran across the front of the local sports page and team website. It was his name that dominated every bit of airspace before and after the game, and his touches that brought thousands at the American Airlines Center to boo and jeer. This was The DeAndre Jordan Game—broadcast before a national television audience in all its pomp and circumstance.
It’s safe to say that the Clippers, and Jordan in particular, had the Mavericks’ full attention. Any “just-another-game” rhetoric rang false in the Mavs’ focus from opening tip; this was a locked-in, well-coached basketball team that forewent all theatrics for the sake of competitive basketball. Any messages sent were made by those out of uniform (including owner Mark Cuban) or were a function of natural play.
“Obviously, there was a lot of hype in the air,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “We tried to stay cool and play our game.”
In doing so, Dallas showcased its most vital and lasting assets: Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, respectively. The Mavericks came into this game overmatched in just the way they had tried to avoid by pursuing Jordan in the first place. They left it with a 113–108 victory that spoke more of the team’s culture than its collective talent.
Nowitzki’s brilliance sometimes overshadows his willingness to be coached and do the work. We see the high-lofting jumpers and patient fundamentals, even in his waning years. What we miss is the full extent of his unorthodox regimen, now the stuff of legend, and the degree to which Nowitzki acts as an extension of Carlisle’s designs. For the last 17 years he has been a superstar in habit as much as game. Everything the Mavs are and were has revolved around him, down to the internal structure of a team that—talent deficits be damned—has generally found ways to execute to sufficiency.
The bar for that has changed over the years from playoff contention to game-to-game competitiveness. Beneath it is the same rigor—if not the same prospects. Carlisle, who recently committed to a five-year extension with the Mavs, gameplans the hell out of every opponent. Nowitzki carries out his wishes as close to the letter as his declining athleticism will allow. It’s not a coincidence so many of Carlisle’s former players swear by his schemes, each immaculately plotted and tailored to opponent.
A marquee matchup against the Clippers was no exception. Dallas did all kinds of things well to steer L.A.’s offense away from its best options from a conceptual standpoint: Lance Stephenson was left to his own devices beyond the three-point line; Jordan was forced out of the game for key stretches by way of intentional fouling; team rebounding and boxing out was made a clear priority; mismatches in the post were exploited; and cross-matches putting Wesley Matthews against Chris Paul and Zaza Pachulia against Blake Griffin worked as intended.
“Obviously we were doing our homework before the game—coaches, mostly,” Pachulia said.
Such is a constant for any Carlisle-coached team. One could easily find error the Mavs’ track record of free agent pursuits, draft balks, and misguided trades—some defensible, others confounding. Yet no matter which players ultimately end up on Dallas’s roster, it can find some comfort in the fact its coaching staff has carefully thought every matchup through and created a maximized game plan. Its is a culture of preparation.
When Pachulia came in to lift weights of his own accord on one of the Mavericks’ off-days last weekend, he found an empty gym and a single, occupied office. The doctor was in. Carlisle called Pachulia over, somehow ready with fully sorted and dissected clips from Dallas’ game the night before. Bucks coach Jason Kidd had given his ex-center Pachulia forewarning about Carlisle’s attention to detail. To see it up close struck Pachulia all the same.
“[Carlisle is] a coach who cares, who’s always prepared,” Pachulia said. “That’s motivation for the player because I’ve gotta make sure I’m the same way. This is a team. This is a family. We have to be on the same page.”
Carlisle sees to it that they are. There will always be gaffes—Tuesday’s 120–105 loss to the then-winless Pelicans a prime example. Yet fundamentally, the Mavs approach every game from a position of advantage. Whether they follow through depends on the players themselves and, lately, their availability. Chandler Parsons was absent from the lineup on Wednesday, for example, because of the team’s commitment to the long game of his recovery from hybrid microfracture knee surgery.
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“We have a plan here with Parsons,” Carlisle said. “Everybody wanted to play this game but you can’t approach it that way. You’ve gotta do what’s best for the team. If we’d held him out and Matthews out [Tuesday] night and played him tonight, then those guys—and Parsons in particular—get one day of rest in between games instead of two. You just can’t do that. It’s just not the right thing to do. It’s a karmically flawed approach ... and we had to play this week straight.
Every game matters and this one, perhaps more than most to certain members of the Mavs organization. But none matters so much that it should undercut Dallas’s greater goals for bringing along an increasingly complete roster. Growing Parsons’s minutes slowly, broadening Matthews’s responsibilities, hedging Nowitzki’s workload, stoking Deron Williams, and grooming prospects like Justin Anderson are all very much part of that plan.
It doesn’t end in a championship. It doesn’t even track forward in any kind of easily conceivable way, as would be the luxury of a team with blue-chip prospects or stars working in their prime. Whether the Mavericks claim to be over Jordan is almost immaterial. They’re still recovering from the impact of his flipped decision, regardless, and could be for some time. Dallas has plenty left to prove and only a variable, veteran core to work with. With that, the Mavericks begin the long road back to a higher level of contention in the same committed, detail-oriented way they have approached every game under Carlisle. Theirs is a culture of preparation, and it brings out the best in all who follow.