While the continuing evolution of the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the overarching story of the series, the Dallas Mavericks were undone as much by the stubbornness of Rick Carlisle as anything else.
Carlisle stuck with his veterans to the bitter end, going all-in with a Game 4 starting lineup that featured Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Brendan Haywood despite the trio's underwhelming performance through the first three games.
Haywood, in 25 minutes, scored 4 points on 1-3 shooting and grabbed 4 rebounds. Offensively, his inability to do much of anything allowed the Thunder to double-team off him liberally, with his two misses coming in the most embarrassing fashion possible: a missed dunk on the fast break and an air ball on a pick-and-pop jumper.
At this stage of his career, he's only valuable defending the low post, which isn't very useful against a Thunder team that doesn't get any offense from their center position.
And while Haywood took up space for over half the game, Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright remained chained to the bench. In 13 minutes, Mahinmi had more points, rebounds and blocks than Haywood had in twice that much time. Wright, meanwhile, is the team's longest and most athletic center, with a block percentage (6.4%) nearly double than anyone else on the roster.
In his post-game press conference, Carlisle claimed he tried everything in the fourth quarter, when the Mavericks were outscored 35-16. Somehow, it never occurred to him to play the team's best shot-blocker as Oklahoma City ran a train at the rim.
Conducting that train were Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, as Carlisle continued to pound a square peg into a round hole by playing his ancient guard duo against one of the fastest and most athletic back-courts in the NBA. And while Kidd and Terry both clocked in with at least 38 minutes of action, Delonte West, the Mavericks' best perimeter defender, played 18 minutes and Rodrigue Beaubois, their speediest guard, didn't enter the game.
It's hard to believe Beaubois and West couldn't have matched Terry's 4-12 shooting line if they had received 42 minutes of playing time and as much offensive freedom. They certainly couldn't have played worse defensively.
There's not much else to say about Vince Carter, who continued to ... receive playing time. Since Terry and Kidd seemed to have tenure-like protection on spots in Dallas' crunch-time rotation, it might have been useful to go small and keep West on the floor, which Carlisle finally did with two minutes left.
One of the hardest parts about being an NBA coach is divvying out playing time. While the matchups may dictate one lineup, players aren't automatons, and dramatically reshuffling a rotation can affect chemistry while also jeopardizing personal relationships the coaches have with their players.
That's why many of the league's best X's and O's coaches (Tom Thibodeau, Stan Van Gundy) aren't known for their people skills. It's extremely unlikely that Van Gundy would have stuck with his veterans as long as Carlisle did.
It paid off for Carlisle last year, but without the league's Defensive Player of the Year behind them, it was never going to work in 2012.
The Thunder were the better team, especially with the emergence of Harden. However, there's a reason Dallas went 0-3 in the series in what were essentially toss-up games, and it goes directly to the decisions of their coaching staff.
For more coverage of the series, stay tuned to the SB Nation Dallas storystream as well as Mavs Moneyball, and for the Oklahoma side of things, head over to Welcome To Loud City.