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Art Garcia

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images/Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Mavs, Nuggets take on personality of coaches

By Art Garcia,
Posted May 9 2009 1:40PM

DALLAS -- J.J. Barea walked into Rick Carlisle's office just a few days into the season. The third-year backup point guard, concerned he might not have a place in the rotation, thought it time to touch base with the new Mavericks coach.

"I wanted to tell him I would be ready," Barea said. "I didn't have a great preseason, but I was ready for whatever he needed. He just told me I was going to get my chance."

Not long after that talk, Barea logged 14 minutes in a win at New York. Considering he had 16 minutes total in the four previous games, the stint represented a breakthrough. Barea has been a Carlisle regular ever since.

Carlisle and George Karl, two coaches matching wits in the Western Conference semifinals, know their X's & O's and understand the value of listening. The latter may be the biggest reason the Mavericks and Nuggets have made it this deep into the Playoffs.

"I would agree that they're good fits for where they are," said P.J. Carlesimo, a former coach and current TNT analyst who's worked this series. "But I also can't imagine too many places where George and Rick wouldn't work."

Denver hadn't been out of the first round since 1994, while Dallas is coming off two straight years of first-round disappointment. The Nuggets lead the best-of-seven series 2-0 going into Saturday afternoon's Game 3 at American Airlines Center.

The roads for these coaches with their respective teams haven't always been smooth. Karl led the Nuggets into the postseason the previous four years and they won a total of three games. He publicly bemoaned giving away Marcus Camby before this season an the loss of a couple of assistants.

Carlisle began his career with Dallas winning just two of the first nine games, and stories surfaced during an up-and-down season of communication issues with several players. The Mavericks went into the stretch run in danger of missing the Playoffs for the first time in nine years.

Both teams finished the season peaking and rolled through the first round. The Mavericks needed just five games to upset San Antonio and Denver demolished New Orleans in record fashion.

"I haven't been out of the first round since 2001," Karl said, harking back to his days in Milwaukee. "As a coach, I kind of like being out of the first round. That was a long time ago. It felt like forever."

After years of headaches, Karl likes the athleticism and fortitude of this team. The Nuggets have gone from "loose and goofy" to playing with "mental toughness." Much of that credit, as Karl has said, goes to Chauncey Billups.

The ex-Pistons quarterback knows exactly want Karl wants, despite working together for less than a season.

"A lot of times we don't even call plays," Billups said. "We're running and just having fun."

The Mavericks needed a little more time to feel Carlisle out. One player joked that Carlisle is more comfortable text messaging than talking face-to-face, but the interaction with Barea early is just one instance of his openness to new ideas.

The coaching staff, from assistant down to video coordinators, has a strong voice in practice and preparation. The input doesn't end there. Carlisle has come to rely on his players, with Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, among others, sharing thoughts on everything from shootaround schedules to the plays run during games.

"It's something that I learned from Chuck Daly when I worked with him," Carlisle said of his first assistant gig in the NBA. "You have to hear what those guys have to say and what they're thinking because they're out there playing the game. Sometimes that information can really sway your decision making.

"When you're in this position, a leadership position as an NBA head coach, ultimately you have to make the decision. I like having a lot of information and I like getting it from reliable sources, and from guys who have been there and done that."

Carlisle isn't the easiest guy to get to know, even within team circles. But as the season has progressed, the wall has started to come down. One team insider likened Carlisle's penchant for keeping people at arm's length to Carlisle's former teammate and friend Larry Bird.

Though he's not one to yuk it up in the locker room, it's not totally out of the question to find Carlisle playing ping-pong or pool with a player. He oversaw a team dinner while in Denver to watch the Pacquiao-Hatton fight.

"He's trying to talk to us and socialize with us more," Barea said.

Teams often take on the personality of their coaches, or so the story goes, and both these teams share traits with their skippers. The Mavericks come off businesslike, much as the button-down Carlisle. Karl's free spirit -- he once wore a '70s leisure suit for throwback night -- matches the Nuggets' vibe.

"There's something to that, but it's less about personality," Carlesimo said. "Coaching is always about players, and more so in the NBA than college. For the elite guys, it's more about the roster than it is about the coaches. It's like playing poker. You can't win when you don't have the cards, but not everyone does as good when you don't have them.

"Rick is so steady and so controlled and has a good feel. He's non-confrontational. His teams interact well. George's good teams are defensive-minded. I look back at his Seattle teams. He's gone off on an offensive tangent recently, but George is still George."

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