As Derek Fisher blew by the Dallas defense at will in the third quarter of Game 3, the reality of the Mavericks 2012 demise became painfully obvious.
The series, and really the entire season, is best explained by the team's off-season acquisition plan. To be fair, their concentration was on the future and Deron Williams. Nevertheless, the team's starting point guard crawled another year closer to 40 and Vince Carter proved to be what we all thought he was -- a healthier Caron Butler (not a compliment). And they each received a lion's share of minutes at their respective positions.
The team thrived at some times during the season and limped through others stretches, with pundits blindly ascribing their struggles to a lack of youth. But a dearth of youth and talent was never an issue; Rodrigue Beaubois, Delonte West and Brandan Wright languished on the bench for far too long despite their repeated and substantial contributions.
The responsibility for the Mavericks' failed title defense falls at the feet of both the team's coach and GM. But in this case, the vast majority of the blame resides with coach Rick Carlisle. 'Til his last, Carlisle continued to believe Jason Kidd and Vince Carter would return to peak performance despite their obvious limitations.
Carter had his highlights, including a dunk on the air after blowing by Derek Fisher (and hitting a subsequent extreme flex) in Game 3. But he again fell short of making a meaningful contribution. Air Canada's acrobatic theatrics on no one gave him the confidence to do things he can no longer do (score in the paint, use his athleticism to get open looks at the rim inside, etc.).
But Carter's struggles with the more talented Thunder were hardly unique. Jason Kidd was consistently over-matched attempting to square off against younger, quicker guards all season. When paired with the offensive spark-plug/defensive turnstile that is Jason Terry, Oklahoma City's guards mercilessly assaulted the Mavericks perimeter defense. And yet, during the 3 competitive (generous) quarters of game 3, Carlisle managed to squeeze out 2 paltry minutes for the team's future at guard, Roddy B. Down 26 with 5 minutes remaining the final period, Beaubois remained on the bench.
Given Carlisle's adept personnel adjustments during last year's championship run, it is difficult to question his knowledge of the game. Instead, it's time to question his appreciation of his personnel. How he failed to notice the team's perimeter deficiencies on the defensive end is unfathomable. Even the untrained eye could discern the squad's utter lack of defensive quickness with Kidd and Terry on the floor. Nevertheless, they remained stalwarts in the Coach's crunch-time lineup.
And while "leadership" and "knowing how to win" were "shockingly" inadequate against a team that was flat out better, Carlisle's decision to play inferior talent was only part of the equation. Jason Kidd's hesitancy to attempt open layups in the paint is one thing, but the lack of attention to detail was astounding for a Rick Carlisle-coached team. Even early in Game 3, Dallas appeared completely disinterested in doing the simple things necessary to win -- like blocking out and moving the basketball to the open man.
Though part of the equation can be attributed to ego and expiring contracts (Carter and Terry), the failure of basic fundamentals is inexplicable. It was uncharacteristically sloppy, and the problems go beyond the coach. Simply put, this team wasn't the cohesive unit it was last year. The grab-bag of has beens and hopefully-will-be's wasn't good enough to get it done.
It would be a stretch to say the team didn't respond to their coach. Carlisle simply didn't play his best players. He didn't play the best match-ups, and he's too good of a coach to have an excuse.