For five games — no, make that seven months, he said — coach Rick Carlisle has been exhorting his Dallas Mavericks to step it up.
Make a few stops.
Play a little defense.
Don’t surrender, as the Mavericks did Wednesday night, an unseemly 54 points in the paint.
What made Carlisle think, therefore, after the San Antonio Spurs had won a pivotal Game 5 109-103, that the Mavericks have the wherewithal to suddenly turn their defensive fortunes around?
“I know a few things about our guys,” Carlisle answered. “I have a great belief in them.”
After trashing his team’s defensive effort in the Game 4 defeat, Carlisle apparently was trying a different approach.
“We’ve been in big games before, meaningful games,” Carlisle said, diplomatically. “We’ve been down this road.”
Maybe they have. But the Mavericks have reached that point on the NBA playoff superhighway where the road forks. One way appears to be navigable only by stopping Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and right soon. The other side of the road’s fork includes plenty of off-season golf.
Carlisle gave appropriate due to a San Antonio bunch that played, maybe for the first time in this series, like a confident, veteran team blessed with an abundance of winning pieces.
“They’re a great passing team,” he said. “They got us again in a lot of late shot clock situations.
“We’ve got to pick it up defensively.”
Even a little might do, because despite an unending parade of Spurs pick-and-rolls and give-and-go’s, the Mavericks had the ball with a chance to trim their deficit to two as the game entered its final three minutes.
“We’ve just got to get more stops,” Carlisle said.
Wasted on this night was a 26-point, 15-rebound effort, most of it in the second half, by Dirk Nowitzki. Equally squandered was Vince Carter’s 10-for-16 shooting night, 28 points, coming off the bench.
In the postgame interview room, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was asked about the play of Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter, an unconventional nuisance for Nowitzki in the first four games.
Splitter, indeed, had his best game Wednesday night. But it was his offense on the pick and roll, not his defense, that helped the Spurs to gain the series edge.
“That roll is tough,” Nowitzki said. “You can’t give Duncan or Splitter those easy, uncontested layups.”
The Mavericks seemed to dearly miss center DeJuan Blair, absent because of a one-game suspension for kicking Splitter in the head in Game 4.
“Absolutely,” Carter agreed. “They just exploited us. Too many easy baskets.
“We need all our bigs to contribute.”
The combination, however, of Parker’s energy and the Mavericks’ defensive fog were too much for Carlisle’s team to overcome.
“We just have to have more energy about our defense,” Nowitzki said. “What’d they have — five turnovers? I mean, that’s a joke in a 48-minute game.”
It is, but the real punchline in this series is yet to be written.
Carlisle thinks his team, after seven months of his preaching good defense, can rise to the occasion and stifle the Spurs in Game 6.
The reality is that Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have been stopped only in fleeting stretches through these first five games.
For the Mavericks’ season to continue, that has to stop — and right soon.
Carlisle thinks they can.
The alternative is a lot of upcoming golf.