By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle needs to pull a page from Avery Johnson‘s 2006 postseason playbook against San Antonio and match speed on speed, minute-for-minute.
Johnson sprung second-year backup point guard Devin Harris on Tony Parker and the Spurs in Game 2 of their 2006 semifinal series. His insertion into Dallas’ starting lineup proved to be a catalyst in ending the Spurs’ repeat title hopes in seven games.
In 2008, Dallas traded Harris to the Nets for Jason Kidd, and Parker applauded.
“To be honest with you,” Parker said back then, “I’m really happy for that trade.”
After stops with the Nets, Jazz and Hawks, Harris is back in Dallas and Carlisle essentially followed Johnson’s adjustment in Sunday’s tough, 90-85 Game 1 loss, turning to Harris early and often over the miscast Jose Calderon. One of the few men in the league with the quicks to challenge the Spurs’ All-Star point guard and driving offensive force, Harris nearly won the game for the eighth-seeded and heavy underdog Mavs, who didn’t get typical efforts from Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, yet led 81-71 with 7:45 to go.
Carlisle endured five minutes before turning to Harris over the slow-footed Calderon, whose defensive deficiencies grew in their unpalatability as his shot misfired. Calderon was 0-for-4 from the floor, with only one attempt being a bread-and-butter 3-pointer, when he made way for Harris. The Spurs led 9-2 and Parker, being guarded by overmatched Mavs small forward Shawn Marion as Dallas mixed coverages, scored the first seven points on beautiful drive-and-scoops.
Harris might need to play 35 minutes or more if they’re going to press the Spurs, so he might as well get started on Parker from the jump. At Mavs practice back in Dallas on Monday, Carlisle didn’t tip his hand with Wednesday’s Game 2 still more than 48 hours away, but Nowitzki told reporters they’re sticking with Calderon.
“We’re rolling the way we’re set up,” Nowitzki said. “Jose has been our starter the whole year. We’ve got to start the game off a little better. I think we were a little slow and we were down eight or 10 pretty quick there in the first quarter, so we’ve got to be a little better there, but Jose is our starter. He’s the guy that puts us in our plays and we’re rolling with it.”
Calderon, playing in his first postseason since 2008 with Toronto, logged just 16 minutes — his shortest stint of the season not cut short by injury. He watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench. Harris played 32 minutes, his third-most minutes of the season, scored 19 points — one off his season high — including three 3-pointers, with five assists, and he consistently forced the issue against Parker and speedy Spurs backup Patty Mills.
“He’s capable of that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, noting Harris’ scoring binge . “He might not do it night after night after night, but he’s capable of it, and he showed that.”
Parker, who finished with 21 points and six assists, left Sunday’s game offering Harris credit, and something of a pointed compliment.
“He surprised us a little bit,” Parker said. “He made three 3s in the first half. He usually doesn’t make those 3s. Devin is the type of guy, he can score a lot of points quickly, so we are going to have to stop that.”
It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for Carlisle to alter his starting lineup in the postseason. In the 2011 Finals against Miami, Carlisle inserted the diminutive J.J. Barea at shooting guard over defensive-minded DeShawn Stevenson trailing in the series 2-1 to take advantage of Barea’s quickness and ability to penetrate. The Mavs never lost again.
Carlisle did go back to Calderon to start the third quarter against San Antonio and the tough-minded veteran responded with three buckets, but finished 3-for-9 with seven points and a couple assists. A spot role in this series for the Spaniard, who signed a four-year $29 million deal with Dallas last summer, could be something he’ll have to accept.
The Spurs have won 10 games in a row over Dallas, including 4-0 during the regular season. Parker played in the first three meetings and torched the Mavs for 23.3 ppg — seven more than his season average — on 54.2 percent shooting. Calderon averaged 29.6 minutes in the four games. Harris averaged 20.5 mpg playing in only 40 games after undergoing offseason toe surgery.
While Sunday’s Game 1 was Calderon’s shortest stint of the season, it was the second time in the last three games that Carlisle sat the 32-year-old against a quick, penetrating backcourt. Calderon, who averaged 30.5 mpg during the regular season, played just 17 minutes with a playoff berth on the line against Phoenix in the second-to-last game of the season.
Nowitzki and Ellis must pick up the scoring load, but the bigger burden at both ends of the floor might just lie with Harris’ ability to tackle Parker.
“His quickness, his ability to shoot the pull-ups, shoot the 3, get in the paint, find guys is just something we have to exploit,” Mavs shooting guard Vince Carter said of Harris.
It’s why Harris should find himself back in the Mavs’ starting lineup come Wednesday night.