Posted May 31 2011 10:53AM
MIAMI -- In the midst of the wild celebration on the American Airlines Center court at the end of the Western Conference finals, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban snuck up on Rick Carlisle and planted a kiss on the coach's cheek that seemed shocking only because of Carlisle's reaction.
Normally a man averse to any sort of public display of excitement, let alone affection, Carlisle actually cracked a smile after Cuban's celebratory smooch.
For those most familiar with Carlisle for his three seasons guiding the Mavericks, it might not have seemed an odd reaction. But for those who have observed the man longer, those who have watched him since he toiled as an assistant coach in Indiana and before, that brief exchange with Cuban was the final, convincing piece of evidence needed to confirm that Carlisle has indeed mellowed.
Not that Carlisle, hours away from the opening tip of his first trip to The Finals as a head coach, has any desire to dwell on himself or his past. Not with the veteran Mavericks dialed into this series and needing minimal distractions as they deal with a superstar-driven Heat team with their own designs on the Larry O'Brien trophy.
If Carlisle's said it once he's said it 100 times since the Mavericks began this playoff run six weeks ago: "It's not about me."
Yet this team and all that it has been about during its run through this postseason points directly to Carlisle. The Mavericks are unflappable in the middle of chaos, relentless in their attention to detail and possess a wicked air of confidence that borders on cocky.
"They play with a precision and a savvy that you know is a result of having one of the best coaches in the game preparing them," said a Western Conference executive who insists that Carlisle has been the best in-game technician throughout this postseason. "Just look at the way they have attacked every team they have faced up to this point. They shredded the Trail Blazers in those final two games of that series. They blitzed the Lakers from deep, spreading them out and then attacking them up the middle with [J.J.] Barea. And then they completely destroyed the Thunder with different defensive looks that those kids could never figure out. Rick's been unbelievable. I mean, he is really, really, really good at finding your weakness and exploiting it."
In nine seasons as a coach, including the first two in Detroit and four in Indiana, Carlisle's formula has always been the same: tireless team defense and a collective, yet controlled, ferocity on both ends of the floor. His .600 career winning percentage and eight postseason trips in nine tries makes it easy to believe.
Whatever Carlisle, 51, lacks in motivational skills -- Knute Rockne-style pregame and halftime speeches are not his forte -- he more than makes up for with an advanced degree of technical expertise. It's been that way forever, and especially since his last trip to this stage. As an assistant to Larry Bird with the Pacers, he was on the bench as Indiana lost in six games to the Lakers in The Finals 11 years ago.
Even the players who have bristled under his tight reign earlier in his career have since come around.
"Rick [Carlisle] is the best coach in the league right now ... Has been for the whole year," Lakers forward Ron Artest wrote on Twitter Monday morning, "Rick is great at out coaching ... I played for him n he always found a way ... Jim Kerry look alike or not He is a dope coach."
Artest spent parts of three tumultuous seasons playing for Carlisle in Indiana, playing some of the best basketball of his career and obviously enduring the most galling stretch of his career on Carlisle's watch, beginning with the Malice at the Palace back in 2004.
Lost in the fallout from that night -- which included Artest being suspended for the remainder of the season for his role in the brawl between Pistons fans and Pacers players -- is that in the seven games he'd played in that season he was on pace to have the best year of his career. He was averaging a career-high 24.6 points and 6.4 rebounds after winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award the year before. And he'd lit up LeBron James for 31 points in Cleveland in the season opener.
That season might have been Carlisle's finest coaching effort to date, working with the volatile Artest and a team that was clearly the class of the Eastern Conference before those final and fateful 45 seconds against the Pistons at the Palace.
Carlisle's ability to keep that team together in the wake of all of the suspensions and drama that followed is arguably the most impressive work he's done. He salvaged the Pacers' season by guiding a team that played the bulk of the year without not only Artest but also without All-Star power forward Jermaine O'Neal and swingman Stephen Jackson.
The Pacers finished the 2004-05 season with a 44-38 record and a spot in the playoffs. Carlisle used a makeshift lineup that included 20 different players and journeymen like Eddie Gill, Tremaine Fowlkes and Britton Johnsen. The Pacers beat the Celtics in seven games in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Pistons in six games in the conference semifinals.
At the time, then-Pacers boss Donnie Walsh insisted it was the "best coaching job I've seen, considering the circumstances."
Carlisle already had a Coach of the Year award on his resume, won during his first year in Detroit after the 2001-02 season. So he was already considered one of the brightest young coaches in the game. But the fact that he never complained, at least publicly, about having to piece together his roster that season endeared him to the players who walked through that fire with him, players whose indifference toward Carlisle before then was palpable.
"Rick Carlisle has to be Coach of the Year," O'Neal said. "If you have great players, it's easy to win. If you take away those players, it has to be the coach. Take away the top two or three players from any other team and ask me if they'd be in position to compete."
His work throughout this postseason has served to confirm what most league insiders already knew: that Carlisle can and will win with whatever type of roster he has. He can dig the best out of youngsters and veterans alike and will mold them into a playoff team.
Give him Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and the bunch he has now and he can craft a potent force capable of competing for a championship.
"You could not ask for a more talented, bright coach," Raptors assistant P.J. Carlesimo, whom Carlisle worked under as an assistant in Portland, told the Portland Tribune during the first round of the playoffs. "Rick has been a very successful head coach with three different organizations. That does not happen often. Everybody in the league thinks he is near the top, no question."
Perhaps even more important than the respect of his peers is the universal respect Carlisle has garnered from players over the years. The Mavericks swear by him, even those who were willing to admit that they'd heard interesting stories about his quirky personality and dry sense of humor.
Veteran forward Brian Cardinal has a unique perspective on Carlisle. Cardinal played under him in Detroit at the start of his career (and Carlisle's head coaching career) and now could end up winning a title with him.
While he couldn't pinpoint any drastic differences in the coach, he did notice an ease in the man. "Experience has a way of changing anyone," Cardinal said. "He's been around the league a bit, coached a lot of different places and players and has a family now ... bottom line, he's as good as it gets."
And that peck on the cheek from Cuban?
"Are you sure that happened?" Cardinal said smiling. "I need to see the tape."
Stay tuned. More could be coming.
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