After news broke that Mavs center DeJuan Blair would be suspended for tonight’s Game 5 in San Antonio, the gears in head coach Rick Carlisle’s head surely started turning quickly. Blair might have been the best player on the floor during Game 4, and he plays with the type of energy and fearlessness that coaches love, especially when trying to complete an upset in a seven-game series.
But Carlisle won’t have Blair at his disposal in the pivotal Game 5, which means he’ll need to find Blair’s energy and production elsewhere. Where might he look? Well, if the first four games are any indication, Carlisle might stick with what he knows best.
Each of the Mavs’ three most-used five-man units in the playoffs include either Sam Dalembert or Brandan Wright at center, not Blair. What’s more, each of those units has a positive net rating, meaning they score more points than they allow per 100 possessions. Those three groups combined have averaged about 26 minutes of playing time per game, or just over half the game. Dallas has found success with its starting lineup during the last few games against the Spurs, shooting woes in Game 4 aside.
That could mean Blair’s absence likely means more playing time for Dalembert at center, which is not a bad thing. Dalembert has been excellent defensively in this series and has been able to keep possessions alive offensively, giving the Mavs plenty of second chances. He’s averaging 4.7 offensive rebounds per game in Games 2 through 4 and 10.7 total rebounds. Add that to his 1.8 blocks per game in the playoffs and it becomes quite clear that Dalembert has answered the call in the playoffs. He was also able to coax Tim Duncan into foul trouble in Game 4.
But he can’t play 48 minutes per game. At some point, Dalembert will rest, meaning Carlisle will fill the void at center by turning either to Wright or possibly even Bernard James, who’s seen only two minutes of action in the series. There’s a chance, as well, that the Mavs will go small by putting Dirk Nowitzki at the center spot. Don’t be surprised to see a lineup with Dirk at the 5; San Antonio went very small at points during Game 4, playing a “four-out” offense — a lineup featuring one ball-handler, three shooters, and one big man. That particular lineup gave Dallas fits on Monday night when the Mavs used a “traditional” center, so there’s a chance Carlisle was planning to counter with Nowitzki anyway.
Seeing Nowitzki at center isn’t an extremely rare sight — according to Basketball-Reference, Nowitzki was the center for 29 percent of his minutes this season, or for about 10 minutes per game. One possible unit including Dirk at the 5 could be a three-guard lineup with Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Monta Ellis, Shawn Marion at the power forward, and Nowitzki. Dallas might also move to a switching lineup if San Antonio goes “four-out,” playing with Nowitzki, Marion, Vince Carter, Jae Crowder, and one of the Mavs’ three small guards. Clearly, Carlisle has plenty of options to go with.
Regardless, Wright is the most likely candidate to receive the majority of the backup minutes at the center spot. Offensively, Wright was phenomenal all season, and that’s held true in the playoffs — to the point that he’s having perhaps the most efficient playoffs ever. At the same time, Blair and Dalembert have performed better against Tim Duncan defensively in the series, which led to the increase in Blair’s minutes after Game 1. Wright will need to be very active on the defensive end tonight against the pick-and-rolls involving Manu Ginobili and Duncan, especially if the Mavericks cover those looks the same way they did in Game 4. That shouldn’t be a problem in theory; Wright’s athleticism is unmatched by anyone on either team’s roster. He’ll just need to be on his “A” game.
Bernard James could also see some minutes here and there, especially if either Dalembert or Wright get into foul trouble. He’s not a bad third option off the bench at all. Mavs fans haven’t seen much of Sarge this season, but he’s a capable player in the pick-and-roll game and has good hands. Defensively, he has the length and strength to challenge shots at the rim, but if he sees minutes in tonight’s game, he’ll need to make sure he avoids committing fouls. Dallas can’t afford for all three of its centers to be battling foul trouble in addition to a Hall of Famer in the post.
Game 5 is just a few hours away, now. Shortly after 6 p.m. we’ll see how Carlisle tweaks his rotation to make up for Blair’s absence. Each candidate for the extra minutes must be ready. This series is too close and full of too much quality on both sides to bring anything less their best.
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