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Who Is Carlisle's Five? And Why?

Fifty-four games into this season, the Dallas Mavericks are still dealing with injuries and inconsistency and running out of time to figure out their most effective combination of players before the playoffs start.

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You know, it's funny, I started writing this column before the Clippers game on Monday and my major premise was that the Mavericks starting lineup may be the most anemic, offensively, of any good team-but that given how each player on that lineup plays a specific role, it was survivable with a little luck. There's no doubt, though, that slow starts are becoming a big problem for the Mavericks. That's something the Clippers game really rubbed in.

And yes, despite the fact that Mavs lineups have changed like crazy all season, they do have a starting unit. The Mavs do have a starting unit. Against the Magic, it was Kidd-Carter-Marion-Dirk-Haywood. On Christmas day, it was Kidd-Carter-Marion-Dirk-Haywood. Choosing a random day from the middle of the season, Feb. 28 against the Nets (ugh), it was Kidd-Carter-Marion-Dirk-Haywood. Last night it wasn't, because of an injury to Kidd, but it was Delonte-Carter-Marion-Dirk-Haywood.

4/5ths of that lineup scored a total of 18 points last night.

The disconcerting thing is, the Mavs had an anemic starting lineup last year, and if this were last year, this would be about the time that Carlisle would be throwing Barea or DeShawn into it, just to see. There's no Barea or DeShawn, this year. Just The Disappointing Beaubois.

Lack of scoring is actually the Mavericks' biggest problem, since their defense is good but not elite. But it doesn't really matter who starts. Moreover, the Mavs starting five is not necessarily supposed to outscore other teams. It works, when it actually works this year, because what the Mavs are actually doing with that starting lineup is being all veteran-y. Kidd is there to make the right pass, Marion is there to check the other team's best player, Haywood is there for defense and rebounding and Carter ... well, Carter's there because it was either him or Terry and Terry likes not having to think too hard about what to do.

It works, too, because of Dirk's incredible efficiency. When you have Monta Ellis out there, you need other scorers because you don't know if Ellis is going to start 1-10 or 9-10, though he'll probably have a good night eventually. He's also going to play 40 minutes, so it doesn't altogether matter when he plays. You know Dirk's going to start 6/10, and play 32, and as long as he can keep the Mavs in it, it works okay.

Just okay though. The Mavericks were down 30-19 after the first quarter against the Rockets a few nights ago, 27-17 against Orlando. They won those two, but just because Randy Foye didn't happen to hit 8 three pointers in those games. When they were down 25-17 against the Clippers, they never came close. If Dirk misses early, the Mavs definitely go down big. Even if he doesn't, like last night, they sometimes do.

But the Mavs didn't win a championship because they were a good first quarter team, they did it because they were a good fourth quarter team. It was the closing lineup they had. After letting everyone do what they do, all game, Carlisle would turn to the guys who best blended all the things the Mavericks do together to get it done.

Who are those guys this year?

Unfortunately injuries to Delonte and Haywood, as well as blowouts against Miami and the Clippers, means we don't know exactly what that closing lineup will really look like, come playoff time. Maybe Rick Carlisle doesn't know. But.

But did you know that, against Orlando, Marion, Mahimni, West, and Terry played every minute of the fourth? Dirk subbed in for Carter with 9 left, and from then on, no substitutions were made.

Why not? There are a lot of possible explanations. The first is that when you start coming back from an 8 point deficit in the fourth, you let things go as they're going. The second is that, on the second night of a B2B, Carlisle doesn't much like to play Kidd.

But why not Haywood, the starting center? Why not Wright, who's been so good and especially in fourth quarters? Why not Odom for just a little bit (okay we know that one). Why not put Kidd in for the last two minutes?

Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are sort of obvious. My guess is Mahimni was in because he was playing well, not because there's a general preference to him over Hay as a defender or Wright as a scorer. Besides, that, there are some unfortunate realities facing the Mavericks:

1) Jason Kidd, years away from being a prolific scorer, has nevertheless taken a huge step backwards this year. His 6 points a game are down from 8 last year, and his three-pointing shooting has continued to decline (to 34%) from a high of 43% two years ago. Because this is not nearly as competent an offensive team as last year's, the Mavericks have reached the tipping point where Delonte's combination of offense and defense is more necessary than Kidd's decision-making. If Dallas is up four, with a few minutes left, maybe you go with Kidd, if there's no small guard to check. But all too often, of late, the Mavericks need somebody at the end of the game who can put the ball in the basket, and Jason Kidd is no longer that person.

2) Which is not to say that Carlisle kept him out for any reason other than the b2b thing, since he loves him some super-veterans. But maybe he saw what happened and liked it.

3) Jason Terry may be absolutely inconsistent this season, but there's no point in worrying about it because if he doesn't score, we lose anyway. He scores 3 against the Heat, they lose by 21. He scores 2 against the Hornets---the Hornets-they lose by 5. He scores 6 against the Suns, they lose by 2. That's not to say that Terry hasn't scored well and had the Mavs lose, too, but they've only won one game in the last month when he scores less than 10.

4) Dirk has shown a disappointing tendency to get fatigued towards the end of the game, but we don't have anyone close to being able to provide the scoring for the Mavs that he does, so it also doesn't matter.

5) Vince Carter and Lamar Odom have been completely unable to provide anything resembling consistency.

6) Haywood can't shoot free throws.

In other words, if the Mavs do have a closing lineup, the disappointing fact about it is that it's the only thing they can do. On some level, only Marion and West can play perimeter D and only Dirk and Terry can score. That's not to say that others don't score sometimes and don't play defense others, but in terms of being able to do it consistently, that's it.

So I guess my point is, the Mavs DO have a closing lineup too---but if they're to have any hope, this year, they're going to have to find a way to make Carlisle's decisions about it tougher, not easier.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.