DALLAS – For the second time since trading for Nerlens Noel on Feb. 23, the Dallas Mavericks used a starting lineup that included the 6-11 center.
And for the second time, the Mavs won that game with Noel starting in the middle and creating all sorts of havoc for the opponent.
With Noel starting, Dirk Nowitzki was pushed from playing center to his customary power forward spot, and Harrison Barnes shifted from power forward to his customary small forward position.
The new strategy also moved Wesley Matthews from small forward to his customary shooting guard spot, while Seth Curry shifted from shooting guard to point guard, and Yogi Ferrell was relegated to coming off the bench.
All of the moves paid off handsomely as the Mavs did what they needed to do to hang on and defeat the Los Angeles Clippers, 97-95, before a Thursday night sellout crowd of 19,703 at American Airlines Center.
Coach Rick Carlisle had been contemplating moving Noel back into the starting lineup. And with the Clippers having All-Star center DeAndre Jordan and All-Star forward Blake Griffin as part of their front wall, he knew Thursday was the right time to make that move, which turned out to be priceless.
"It’s a lineup that we need to look at,’’ Carlisle said. "The numbers on them were good tonight – they were a pretty significant plus in the game, so that’s a good sign.
"We got to look at Curry at point with a really conventional team out there, we got to look at Noel with Dirk and Barnes, we got to see how things would shake out with Barnes at (small forward)."
While banging with Jordan, Noel collected eight points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in 33 workmanlike minutes. Meanwhile, Nowitzki finished with 14 points on 7-of-12 shots.
Barnes, who scored 21 points, also benefitted from Carlisle putting Noel in the starting lineup. The five-year veteran went from having to deal with powerful and burly players on a regular basis to dealing with players more his size.
"I have a little bit more energy from not banging with as many bigs,’’ Barnes said. "Nerlens gives us that big presence that we need blocking shots, getting rebounds and finishing in the paint."
Of course, Carlisle admitted that working Noel into the starting lineup is not yet a finished product.
"There’s some refining to be done to his game within what we need him to do,’’ Carlisle said. "He’s moving more and more in the right direction.
"There were several times in the first half where he screened, but didn’t finish his rolls. In the second half he rolled a lot more decisively and it opened things up, it got him one dunk and it could have gotten him a couple others."
The game was marred by a very brief skirmish between Mavs’ 6-foot, 185-pound guard J. J. Barea and Griffin, the Clippers’ 6-10, 251-pound power forward. The players got tangled near midcourt with 5:29 left in the third quarter, and after the referees reviewed the play, Barea was assessed a flagrant foul-2 and ejected from the game, while Griffin wasn’t charged with any infractions.
Two questions from a pool reporter were sent to lead referee Bill Spooner. The first one asked Spooner why was Barea’s push on Griffin worthy of a flagrant foul-2.
"The contact, in our judgment, was deemed unnecessary and excessive,’’ Spooner said. "The contact was to the shoulders and above to the throat.
"That is deemed as a flagrant penalty two."
The second question asked Spooner – after the review -- if he thought Griffin flopped on the play.
"That is not really relevant to our judgment of the play,’’ Spooner said. "It has nothing to do with the merits of the play."
It may or may not had to do with any merits of the play, but Carlisle saw it differently.
"It energized the building,’’ Carlisle said. "It got our team going, certainly at a certain level.
"Watching Griffin’s cat that ate the canary smile tells me the story of that play.
"That’s all you have to look at."
Griffin, who scored 21 points, wound up figuring prominently in the final outcome down the stretch. With the Mavs holding onto a late 96-95 lead, the Clippers threw the ball to Griffin, who was stationed inside the key.
But Barnes rolled over and stripped the ball from Griffin with just 3.9 seconds left.
"I have to give credit to our coaching staff,’’ Barnes said of the steal he made on Griffin. "They scouted that play well before the game.
"We knew it was coming to Blake and he was going to try to make a play. I just tried to play good defense and I was in the right spot at the right time."
Griffin lamented losing the ball in such a clutch situation.
"I think we had some tough shots, but as a team we should be able to score, especially in the last two minutes,’’ Griffin said. "I don’t know, we kind of want to watch it again before I give a full assessment.
"At the end of the day I’ve got to take care of the ball on the last play of the game if you trust me with the last play of the game, or potentially the last play of the game."
Even after Griffin’s fatal turnover, the Mavs had to sweat out the rest of the game. Griffin fouled Wesley Matthews with 0.9 seconds remaining.
But Matthews split a pair of free throws, leaving the door open for the Clippers to steal the game with a 3-pointer. However, J. J. Redick misfired on a 3-pointer at the buzzer after he hoisted it right of the Mavs’ bench.
With that, the Mavs padded their record to 31-40 and moved to within three games of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They also padded their record to a perfect 2-0 with Noel in the starting lineup.
The only other time Noel started was back on Mar. 3 when he had 15 points and a career-high tying 17 rebounds during a 104-100 win over Memphis. Now, he’s given Carlisle another option to consider.
"This is the time to look at that stuff.’’ Carlisle said. "We are trying to win games, which is pretty obvious, and to do it in a meaningful setting is something that’s important."