Nowitzki, Carter, and Pierce reflect on their careers in ESPN Q&A

The NBA Draft classes of 1984 and 1996 are perhaps the most famous in history, but the class of 1998 has to be right up there. Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce have each had incredible careers, and as ESPN’s Tim MacMahon writes, have combined to score 80,413 career points. The group is inching closer to becoming the top-scoring trio in NBA history (82,995 is the mark to beat).

In three separate Q&A sessions, Nowitzki, Carter, and Pierce each reflected on their draft-night experiences, weighed in on each other’s careers, and spoke about what they still enjoy at this point and what’s still ahead of them in their careers.

For example, Nowitzki relayed a story about flying to the U.S. with the Mavs’ brain trust in the days following the draft. At the time, he wasn’t fully committed to playing in the NBA, as he’d only competed in Germany’s second tier. But then-head coach Don Nelson hosted Nowitzki at his home and invited some of his teammates over in an effort to ease Dirk’s concerns.

“That’s when I met Nashie [Steve Nash] for the first time, because they flew him in for the press conference,” Nowitzki told MacMahon. “It kind of clicked from there. I think on my second night, Nellie threw a little barbecue at his house for me, and Fin [Michael Finley] came and Strick [Erick Strickland] came. Nashie was there and some of the other guys who were in town. I just got to mingle a little bit and meet them and speak as much as I could with my English.”

Then, of course, the infamous introductory press conference followed shortly thereafter, once Nowitzki had committed to the Mavericks.

MacMahon asked each player what makes the others special. Pierce showed Nowitzki great admiration in his answer.

“Dirk changed the game, man,” he said. “When you look at what he was able to bring with his versatility and his shooting as a 7-footer, to be able to put the ball on the ground, he was one of the first stretch 4s that you see more of today. I mean, he revolutionized the game. Players like that are transcendent. He was a transcendent player.”

Meanwhile, Nowitzki glowed when discussing Carter, who was his teammate in Dallas from 2011-14.

“I mean, he was a tough matchup because he could post, and he was so freakishly athletic,” he told ESPN. “He’d come off a down pick and just jump up and really nobody could get to his shot. Obviously, he’s so athletic that once he got going to the rim, you could challenge him, but he was going to put you on a poster. He was fun to watch during his prime.”

Every Mavs fan and basketball junkie would find this to be an enjoyable read. These are three basketball legends, and each is approaching the end of what will go down as storied careers. They could all wind up in the Hall of Fame together some day, too. Click here to read the full story.

Mavs wrap up 2013-14 season with focus on future

Exit Interview: Rick Carlisle

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle reflects on the 2013-14 season and looks ahead to next year's campaign.

The general message from each player at Monday’s exit interviews was simple: The Mavs had a two-part goal this season. They accomplished Part One, which was simply getting back into the playoffs after missing out last year for the first time since 2000. Part Two was making some noise once they got there. Although Dallas ultimately fell short in its upset bid against No. 1-seeded San Antonio in the first round, the building blocks are in place for a run next season, so long as the Mavs can blend in potential new faces this offseason with the ones already in the locker room.

Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, Dallas had experienced fairly significant turnover during two consecutive summers. Nine new players donned Mavs uniforms this season, and as a result head coach Rick Carlisle’s team spent much of the first half of the season just getting to know each other. After the All-Star break, however, the Dallas locker room came together and cruised to the finish line, sporting the most efficient offense in the league after the brief February respite. Carlisle, general manager Donnie Nelson, and several players all said keeping the team’s core together is the first step toward winning a playoff series next season and competing for a second NBA championship. Given the players already under contract with the team, the Mavs believe cap flexibility this summer could give them an inside track back to the upper echelon of the West.

“Veteran continuity is one of the important things for continued success,” Carlisle said. “It’s one of the reasons that San Antonio’s had such a long run. We had a long run here before we weren’t able to make the playoffs last year. Dirk (Nowitzki), Vince (Carter), Shawn (Marion), those guys will be key guys this summer as we start talking to guys. That experience and that know-how and the fact that those guys are such good players, it’s gonna give a team like us a starting point every year.”

In order to keep that core together, the Mavs will have some decisions to make in regards to the soon-to-be free agents on the roster. Six players — Nowitzki, Carter, Marion, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair, and Bernard James — will be outright free agents this summer, and a seventh, Samuel Dalembert, has only a partially guaranteed contract for the 2014-15 campaign. Dallas will have roughly $30 million in cap space to work with this summer, much more than most of the other 29 teams in the NBA. That gives the team plenty of free-agent options moving forward, but Nelson said the signing process will begin internally. “Our priority is to look from within first,” Nelson said, “and just take care of the guys that have really taken care of us over the course of the years.”

Here’s a run-down of each free agent on the roster.

DIRK NOWITZKI

2013-14 Stats: 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 49.7 FG%, 39.8 3-PT%, 23.6 PER (10th in the NBA)

That Dude has given every indication that he plans to return, as have Nelson and Mavs owner Mark Cuban. “Dirk’s not going anywhere,” Nelson said. “He’s built this franchise. He’s been with us from day one. Certainly there’s a negotiation to take place, but he loves this city and he wants to call it this home. We certainly reciprocate those feelings.”

Nowitzki has always said he plans to retire a Maverick, and in many ways what Dallas does this offseason will depend on how quickly the team can re-sign Dirk to another deal. It shouldn’t take long.

“We’ll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did, and where we still have enough money left for us to bring great players in,” Nowitzki said Monday.

As for in which areas Nowitzki thinks the team can improve, he said the answer is pretty simple: Just improve.

“You can always get better,” he said. “You can always get more athletic at every position, you can never have enough shooters on your team. You could have another playmaker. You can always get better. That’s not the problem in this league. We’ll just have to wait and see how the summer goes. There’s a lot of cap space. Donnie and Mark are probably gonna go to work. We’ll go from there.”

VINCE CARTER

2013-14 Stats: 11.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists

The Mavs’ 37-year-old sixth man only has one goal, and that’s to win his first title. A franchise’s outlook will matter once he hits the open market.

“The right situation is what it’s all about,” Carter said. “At this point in my career, I just want to play for teams that compete for a championship. I just want that opportunity.”

What does that mean in terms of Carter’s chances of re-signing with Dallas? After all, there are sure to be several championship-caliber clubs desperate for his services next season. If his exit interview is any indication of his future plans, Carter and the Mavs intend to stick together.

“I just had a nice conversation with Donnie (Nelson), just in passing,” Carter said Monday afternoon. “I think the feeling is mutual on both ends. That’s the goal, to work it out.”

Exit Interview: Shawn Marion

Mavs F Shawn Marion looks back on the 2013-14 season with Lonnie Franklin III and thanks fans for their support throughout the year.

SHAWN MARION

2013-14 stats: 10.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 35.8 3-PT% (highest since 2002-03)

The Matrix said he plans on spending life after basketball in Dallas, but how much money might it take for him to play out his career in Mavs blue?

“Not too much,” Marion said. “This is a great city. The fans here are amazing … It’s a great environment.”

The 35-year-old Marion has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best defenders in the league. He can guard four or even five positions on the floor, and has truly given everything he has to the organization.

He and Carter have both made sacrifices of one kind or another during their time in Dallas. Both have spent time coming off the bench, and each has played fewer minutes than they might on another team. However, their sacrifices have not gone unnoticed in Dallas.

“They both have been good ambassadors for the franchise,” Carlisle said of Marion and Carter. “They’ve both been multi-purpose players. Marion’s versatility is well-known, and I’ve been a big supporter and one of his megaphones for it the last few years. Vince had a great series against San Antonio. He was good offensively and defensively, and he was a leader. Both of those guys were leaders. That’s why those guys were really important.”

Added Nelson: “We’ve got some different issues that we’ll deal with during the course of the offseason. But from the veteran leadership that we’ve had in that locker room — over the course of not just this season, but the last several — those are the kind of guys that you want representing your franchise and your city. I’m of course talking about Dirk, and Shawn, and Vince, and you go right down to some of our younger players. We go out of our way to try to get those guys into our locker room.”

DEVIN HARRIS

2013-14 Stats: 7.9 points, 4.5 assists, 2.1 rebounds

Harris missed the season’s first 41 games as he recovered from foot surgery, and spent his first month or so back going through what Carlisle has called his personal training camp and preseason. His impact was certainly felt, however, once he came back healthy. Dallas was 25-16 with Harris and 22-12 after Feb. 1.

During his exit interview, Harris said he’d like to return to the Mavericks and sign a multi-year deal. The point guard actually agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the club last summer, but question marks surrounding his foot injury reduced the deal to one year.

“It was a pretty complex negotiation last time,” Harris said. “I don’t really know where (contract talks) will go. My intent is to come back, but only time will tell whether that will happen or not.”

Nelson stressed the importance of having a player as quick as Harris. “I think in the new game, to have guys who can get in the paint in create, is extremely important, especially given the dynamic of the Mavericks,” he said.

DEJUAN BLAIR

2013-14 Stats: 6.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 53.4 FG%

Blair proved during the series against San Antonio that he can be a difference-maker on a playoff team. He brought energy and toughness to the team during the near-upset, and never failed to provide a jolt of excitement to get the crowd going.

Blair spent the first four seasons of his career in San Antonio before the Mavs inked him to a one-year contract last summer.

BERNARD JAMES

2013-14 Stats: .9 points, .9 rebounds

James played just 30 games this season after appearing in 46 last year for Dallas. The Mavs’ three-center rotation of Blair, Dalembert, and Brandan Wright left little room for James to find playing time. However, Carlisle loves Sarge’s maturity and his ability to stay ready. An athletic big man who’s still learning the game, James can become a rotation player in the NBA if he continues improving.

(Sarge’s fellow center, Sam Dalembert, has just a partially guaranteed contract for the 2014-15 campaign. However, Nelson and Carlisle have both commented on Dalembert’s future with the club, and all indications are that he’ll be back manning the middle next season.)

Once the Mavs take care of their own free agents, their plans for the rest of the summer will become more clear. Dallas plans to make some noise in the playoffs next season, but first bring in some new talent in addition to the group of players it chooses to retain.

“The ultimate goal is to bring a championship here to Dallas as quickly as possible,” Nelson said. “We also respect those that have put us in this position. Those are the two things that we’ve got to blend.”

DeJuan Blair’s energy, second-half defense spur Mavs’ 20-point comeback

Postgame: DeJuan Blair

Mavs F DeJuan Blair comments on the play that resulted in his ejection, the impact it had on the game and more.

At the end of a game in which they trailed by as many as 20 points and shot below 39 percent as a team, the Mavericks were still in position to tie the game with three seconds left on the clock. There’s no such thing as a moral victory in the playoffs, but the Mavs outscored the Spurs by 10 in the second half and nearly stole a game that seemed to be under San Antonio’s control for most of the contest.

As has been the case throughout the entire series, a reserve played a key role in jump-starting a second-half run. In Game 4, DeJuan Blair’s hustle gave the Mavs the energy boost they sorely needed. In just over 13 minutes in the second half, Blair hit all five of his field goal attempts and grabbed nine rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. Dallas scored eight second chance points in the second half, and Blair had plenty to do with it. He also swiped two steals, upping his series total to six.

Unfortunately, he faced an early exit from the game as he was ejected with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter and the Mavs up by one point. Still, he was +6 in the second half and, if nothing else, brought Dallas out of a 20-point hole with the effort and emotion we’ve come to expect from the center.

“He did a great job,” Monta Ellis said of Blair’s play. “He came in and gave us energy and tough defense. He got rebounds and a lot of put-backs. He was a big part of us making that run to get back into the game.”

Added Dirk Nowitzki: “He was fantastic. I thought his energy was great. He was into it.”

Blair has played just 37 minutes thus far in the series — primarily finding minutes in Games 2 and 4 — but he’s made that precious playing time count. The Mavs’ numbers are better across the board when Blair takes the floor, and he has a hand in most of it. When he’s on his game, flying around the floor and creating second chances, he’s dominated the series and the Mavericks are reaping the benefits.

Blair’s Impact

  Blair Off Blair On
Mavs points/100 possessions 103.1 124.4*
Mavs pts allowed/100 possessions 103.9 99.7
Mavs net rating/100 possessions -.8 24.8*
Mavs FG% 42.5 54.4*
Mavs 3-pt% 34.7 36.4
Mavs offensive rebound % 26.4 35.7*
* denotes team-high in respective category

So what must Blair do to find more playing time? The center, though he stands at just 6′ 7″, showed in Game 4 that he has the strength to defend Spurs big men. In fact, Tim Duncan has hit just 40 percent of his shots in the series when Blair has been on the floor versus 57.8 percent when he rests. If Blair can stay active on both ends, he shouldn’t have a problem finding playing time throughout the rest of the series.

There was plenty else to watch in Game 4, of course. Here’s a brief rundown of the Mavs’ offensive and defensive performance in yet another close contest.

MAVS DEFENSE

The Mavericks have done well to limit Tony Parker and Tim Duncan throughout the series, especially in Games 2-4. It’s the third member of the Spurs’ longtime “big 3,” Manu Ginobili, who’s had the biggest impact in this series. The Mavs have had difficulty guarding him in the pick-and-roll — that is, until the second half of Game 4. A pretty simple adjustment made it all possible.

The left-handed Ginobili relies almost exclusively on his strong hand as he attacks the basket. He might begin a drive by moving to his right, but he will usually crossover back to his left before taking the shot. It might look like he had another big game last night — 23 points and five assists on 50 percent shooting — but Shawn Marion and Jae Crowder were able to hold Ginobili to just eight points, one assist, and one turnover in 14-plus second-half minutes. The secret? They made him go right.

Marion has spent most of his time and energy checking Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker, but due to both Marion’s defense and Ginobili’s stellar play, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has run most of the offense through Ginobili in second halves. Last night, Marion switched over to guarding Ginobili instead of Parker, and the results paid off. Below is an example of Crowder forcing Ginobili to his right in the pick-and-roll.

Crowder Forces Manu Right

As Tim Duncan approached Crowder, the Mavs’ wing chose not to accept the screen and instead literally act as a wall, essentially blocking off Ginobili’s strong hand and in effect isolating Blair against the Spurs’ veteran guard. But, in what was nearly identical to a sequence we saw in Game 2, Blair was able to strip Ginobili as he came off the screen and it resulted in a Spurs turnover. Ginobili might end up in the Hall of Fame some day, but no player is perfect. Manu struggles going to his right, and the Mavs took advantage.

Marion covered Ginobili the exact same way Crowder did in the second half. For example, here’s another example of a Mavs wing teaming up with Blair to force him right.

Marion Forces Manu Right

Dallas was even more successful this time around, as Ginobili was blocked off entirely from the basket with just nine seconds left on the shot clock. In a hurry, he fired a cross-court pass to Kawhi Leonard, who immediately caught and drove to the rim, drawing a foul in the process. The Mavs could even take their aggressive defense a little further in the future by having Monta Ellis worry only about his man, Leonard, and completely ignore Tim Duncan as he rolls to the rim. If Ellis had taken a risk by playing the passing lane more aggressively, the possession might have ended in a fast break for Dallas.

The coverage scheme only appeared for one half, and Dallas still lost the game, but it will be interesting to see if Carlisle elects to continue defending Ginobili’s left hand the same way moving forward. It greatly limited the Argentine’s scoring output in the second half and forced the Spurs into some difficult late-clock situations, so it might be worth a shot. However, it could also mean moving Marion off of Tony Parker for longer stretches of the game, meaning Parker could see some extra chances on the ball. The Spurs are the No. 1 seed for a reason: They have plenty of weapons. Stopping them isn’t easy, but Dallas has been able to do so for prolonged stretches in every game thus far.

MAVS OFFENSE

DeJuan Blair wasn’t the only player to bring some energy to the floor. The Spurs played with desperation in the first half, and that extra fire played no small role in building their 14-point halftime lead. San Antonio held Dallas to just 29.3 percent shooting in the first half before the Mavs bounced back to shoot at a 46.5 percent clip in the second act. The key behind the second-half push — for the umpteenth time this season — was the team’s insistence on getting shots at the rim.

The Mavs attempted just five shots at the rim in the first half, hitting only two of them. All in all, Dallas took just one less three-pointer (13) than shots in the paint (14) before the break. In the second half that trend reversed, as the Mavs took 18 shots in the paint compared to just 11 beyond the arc.

And for the second consecutive game, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle drew up a play to get Monta Ellis running toward the rim in the final seconds. In Game 3, Ellis was able to convert a tough runner over Tim Duncan, but Monday night Monta’s attempt against Duncan rimmed out. Following the game, all Carlisle said about the play was that the Mavs don’t want to find themselves in last-second situations, especially during games in which they fall behind so early. However, it’s safe to bet Carlisle’s squad was thrilled with the chance Ellis had to tie the score at 91. The Spurs know by now that Ellis is perhaps the most lethal driver in the game, and Popovich’s team has geared its defense accordingly, but Ellis was still able to beat them for six shots in the paint in the second half alone.

Many times this season, it appeared as if Dallas might have been forcing the three-point shot even when it wasn’t falling, but that wasn’t the case in Game 4. The Spurs led the league in fewest three-point attempts allowed per game, but Dallas managed to shoot 24 three-pointers Monday night and many of them were extremely good looks. If the Mavs can cobble together during Game 5 the same types of looks they found in Game 4, it will likely mean good things for the boys in blue.

The team executed Carlisle’s gameplan yet again in Game 4, especially in the second half, and Dallas was once again in position to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds. Considering the Mavs are the underdogs in this series, that isn’t such a bad scenario to be in moving forward.

Mavs’ supporting cast making significant impact against Spurs

Practice Report: Vince Carter

Mavs G-F Vince Carter talks about putting his game-winner behind him and focusing on getting a win in Game 4.

It’s safe to say the Mavericks have surprised lots of people by taking a 2-1 lead against the No. 1 seeded Spurs. What’s even more shocking, though, is that Dallas has taken two of three without a scoring outburst from Dirk Nowitzki.

But make no mistake: The notion that the Mavs have jumped ahead in the series without Dirk is silly. Even when he isn’t ringing up 25 points per game — his playoff career average — Nowitzki’s impact on the Dallas offense is ever-present. Monta Ellis said as much after the Mavs’ Game 3 win on Saturday.

“Him just being on the floor still makes us better, even when he’s not making shots,” the Mavs’ 2-guard said. “Teams still respect him. He’s still a threat on the floor, so it still really opens up a lot. And even if the shot’s not going down, he’s still a big part of us winning.”

The Spurs have been relentless in defending the seven-footer, as San Antonio is constantly bumping and nudging him in the post before occasionally double-teaming him once he makes the catch. It isn’t as if Nowitzki is even playing poorly. His shooting percentage and total points have both increased every game in the series. He went 7-of-13 from the field in Game 3. Besides, the rest of his teammates have been able to carry the load thus far in the series, letting Nowitzki play within the confines of the offense and take the shots he thinks he should take.

“I didn’t want to force it,” he said after Game 3. “I had looks I did take that I thought were decent enough to take. Good thing is I made most of them. But, yeah, if they’re playing that way, sometimes I’ve just got to be a decoy and let the guys make the plays.”

That’s exactly what Nowitzki’s teammates have done through three games. Every last rotation player has made a significant impact in each game of the series, up and down the entire roster. While the series we’re witnessing on the floor is reminiscent of Mavs/Spurs shootouts in years past (particularly the seven-game classic in 2006), the productivity of the whole Mavericks roster, top-to-bottom, brings back memories of the 2010-11 team. Each game during the Mavs’ magical playoff run that season, a different player stepped up — whether it was Peja Stojakovic draining threes against the Blazers and Lakers, or Brian Cardinal drawing charges in the Finals, one or two Dallas players would provide unexpected, vital scoring or defense to get the win.

In fact, the Mavs’ roster has been so good that during these playoffs Nowitzki, a borderline MVP candidate this season, has the lowest Player Efficiency Rating of any Maverick who’s appeared in more than one game in the series. Seven other key Mavs rotation players, including all four other starters, have a PER above 15, which means they’re playing at an above-average level.

“Dirk’s had a great year and he was a more than deserving All-Star,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “But this roster is built around being able to keep the load on him lighter than it’s been in other years, and so that’s what we’ve gotta keep striving to do. And, like I said, everybody on our team has got to be a go-to guy.”

That was the hallmark of the great 2011 team. Every player was able to make an impact, but, more importantly, every player was ready to make an impact. Carlisle is notorious for telling his players to “stay ready.” Stay ready, stay ready, stay ready. Spend five minutes around the Mavs’ coach and you’ll hear it half a dozen times. His players have bought in, and the results have spoken for themselves through three intense playoff games.

Practice Report: Devin Harris

Mavs G Devin Harris on how Vince Carter's shot boosts the team's confidence, needing to tighten things up on defense and more.

Monta Ellis’ relentlessness fuels Mavs’ Game 3 win

Before the Mavs made up a five-point deficit in two minutes, and before Vince Carter hit the game-winning shot heard ’round the world, we saw a true battle of wits in Game 3. Dallas and San Antonio both played their best offensive game of the series, forcing each team’s defense to dig deep in search of anything to stop the scoring.

In the end, the Mavericks made just enough adjustments to grab a last-second win in one of greatest and most tactically sound games ever played at the American Airlines Center. Here’s a look at how the Mavs made it happen.

MONTA IN THE PAINT

The Spurs were able to keep the electric Monta Ellis out of the paint for the most part in Game 1, and that was a big reason San Antonio walked away with a victory. But in the last two games, Ellis has really forced the issue on the perimeter and getting to the rim at whatever cost. After taking just three shots at the rim in Game 1 (making two), Ellis was 4-of-10 at the rim in Game 2 and 4-of-6 there in Game 3. His six made field goals in the paint on Saturday is his series-high.

It’s paying off. Per SportVU, the Mavs are scoring 11.7 points per game on Ellis drives in the playoffs, third-most in the league. In addition, the 1.41 points Dallas scores per Ellis drive is by far the highest mark among players with at least six drives per game in the post-season. In other words, if Ellis can get to the rim, Dallas is most likely going to come away with points.

The Spurs have thrown everything they can at Ellis throughout the series to keep him on the perimeter, at times even building human walls in the paint and giving him open jump shots. But on Saturday it didn’t matter what San Antonio tried to do against Ellis. He was getting to the rim, and no one was stopping him.

Ellis’ Sick Euro Finish

Monta Ellis abuses the defense with the sick eurostep and makes an incredible circus bucket and-one.

In addition to getting Monta in the lane, the Mavs made two very subtle changes defensively that had very positive results. And in a contest as close as Game 3, even the slightest tweaks can impact the final result.

FRONTING KAWHI LEONARD

One of the Spurs’ biggest matchup advantages throughout the series has been utilizing Kawhi Leonard’s size in the post against some of the Mavs’ smaller guards. Anytime the Spurs run a set that results in a post touch for Leonard, the Mavs have scrambled to double him. For example, when matched up against Monta Ellis in the first quarter, Leonard catches the ball in the post and is immediately double-teamed.

Mavs Double Leonard

After Shawn Marion arrives to help, Leonard immediately kicks it out to Tony Parker, with 11 seconds still on the clock, plenty of time for San Antonio to run something else to generate a quality look. In the meantime, Marion’s man, Boris Diaw, slipped to the rim. That forces Sam Dalembert to sink off Tim Duncan in order to prevent any pass to Diaw. Once Parker makes the catch, Duncan sets a quick screen for Parker and the result is a wide-open jumper.

Parker J out of Double

Dalembert was so far off of Duncan once the Mavs doubled that he doesn’t have enough time to recover to contest the Parker jump shot. But after seeing those looks for Leonard a few times throughout Games 1, 2, and the early part of Game 3, the Mavs made a slight adjustment that ended up working out.

Harris Front

In the play above, Devin Harris is fronting Leonard, or playing between him and Parker, the ball-handler. Parker can’t get the ball in to Leonard unless he lobs a pass over the top, but that’s a risk, as Dalembert is lurking not far away. But not only is Harris denying the entry pass; his struggle for position against Leonard is also draining precious seconds off San Antonio’s shot clock.

Parker can’t get the ball in to Leonard, so he eventually swung it to Diaw. After a few more seconds of grappling on the block, the Spurs eventually got the ball into the post — but only with eight seconds left to shoot. Once Leonard made the catch, Nowitzki arrived to double-team, and because he didn’t have much time to work with, Leonard committed an offensive foul while trying to put up a last-second three-pointer.

There’s a monumental difference between making a catch with eight seconds left versus 12 seconds left. The Spurs don’t like milking the shot clock all the way down to its final few ticks, so anything Dallas can do to essentially waste the Spurs’ time works in the Mavs’ favor. In the second half, San Antonio tried a similar play, but Harris fronted again. Leonard didn’t touch the ball on that possession. By fronting the Spurs’ bigger wing in Game 3, Dallas essentially erased one of the Spurs’ most important advantages.

A BRIEF 2-3 ZONE CAMEO

Dallas used the 2-3 zone effectively in the team’s final regular season meeting against San Antonio on April 10, but until Saturday the Mavs hadn’t used the zone at all throughout the series. That isn’t to say, however, that the Mavs used it much in Game 3, either. In fact, Dallas only deployed the zone on one or two possessions in the game, but — like so many other Mavs adjustments — it paid off.

At a critical juncture in the game — with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter — Dallas debuted its matchup zone made famous during the Mavs’ 2011 championship run. During the regular season and in earlier playoff meetings the Spurs have typically run an “overload” offense against the Dallas zone, basically flooding one side of the floor with as many players as possible to try and get an open look somewhere. However, San Antonio ran no such play against the Dallas zone on this possession, and ended up tossing the ball around the floor to no effect before Danny Green attempted a tough jumper off the dribble. The miss resulted in a long rebound which kickstarted a Dallas fast break the other way, and after a smart Marion find, Devin Harris sank a wide-open three-pointer to give the Mavs the lead.

It’s difficult to set up a 2-3 zone on defense after a miss on the offensive end — especially against a team which enjoys fast breaks as much as the Spurs — but don’t be surprised to see Dallas use some more 2-3 if the Mavs’ personnel doesn’t match up well with San Antonio’s. If anything, it will give the Spurs one more thing to think about and plan for before Monday’s Game 4. And if the quality of play we saw in Game 3 is any indication of what’s yet to come, Game 4 will be the most exciting and interesting tilt yet.

Vince Carter embraces, excels in sixth-man role with Mavs

Vince Carter talks Sixth Man

Vince Carter on what winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award would mean to him, how he's embraced that role here in Dallas, the history and prestige of the award and more.

As basketball players age, they are faced with a challenging decision: either adapt their games and stick around, or simply fade away. This is especially true for players who were once superstars, the best on the planet at what they do.

One such player, Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki, has rightfully received lots of love from the NBA community for his stellar performance this season. The German is shooting up the all-time scoring list and has remained as efficient offensively as ever, even at 35 years old. But for all the pomp and circumstance revolving around Dirk’s prolific season, he’s not the only Maverick extending his career with grace and craft.

The man who replaces him midway through the first quarter every game, Vince Carter, has managed to do the same. Once considered a superhuman, but now only referring to himself as “Old Man, Occasionally Amazing,” Carter has voluntarily stepped out of the spotlight — and the starting lineup — in hopes of ending his career on a high note. It’s fitting that Carter, a player who has received little to no national attention this season, is the one substituted in for Nowitzki halfway through the first quarter every game. One superstar replaces another. He might not be able to be “the man” for 48 minutes, but this season he’s shown that, if only for 24 minutes a night, he can still occasionally amaze.

What matters to the 15-year veteran is not that he begins the game on the bench, but that he typically finishes games on the floor. He averages 6.8 minutes of playing time in fourth quarters this season, and it’s his veteran savvy and penchant for hitting big shots that earns him the minutes.

“It’s a different role, it’s a different mentality,” Carter said of coming off the bench. “As you’re growing up, people in the world in general put so much into being the starter. I think everyone grows up saying ‘I want to be a starter for my team’ instead of being a finisher, being a closer. When you break it down to them they’re like ‘ah, yeah, that makes sense.’ You could be a guy who starts and really doesn’t play anymore the rest of the game.”

Carter has worked as the Mavericks sixth man for two seasons now, after spending a majority of the 2011-12 season as a starter. But when longtime sixth man Jason Terry signed with the Boston Celtics that summer, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said Carter was more than ready to take on the job.

“There’s got to be a willingness of the player to take on that kind of role,” Carlisle said. “The way it’s gone here, when (Jason) Terry left, we had a big void there, and Vince was proactive about it. He started talking about it right away, both publicly and with some of us internally. It made perfect sense … He can be an aggressive guy to score coming off the bench, and we need him to be solid defensively, too.”

The 37-year-old Carter is scoring 12.1 points per game for the Mavericks this season, adding 2.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game, but as with most reserves, the per-36-minute numbers are perhaps more telling than the traditional per-game averages. Although his minutes are down, when looking at those stats, it’s difficult to identify a drop-off. Per 36 minutes, the Sixth Man of the Year candidate is scoring nearly 18 points — right in line with his average since 2010-11 — grabbing 5.3 rebounds, his second-highest mark since 2007-08, and dishing out 3.9 assists, higher than both his career average and his output in any season since 2008-09. His game, once based on high-flying acrobatics and flashy finishes, is now founded upon his ability to knife his way into the lane and get to the rim.

“I’m a slasher, but crafty,” he said. “I’m just taking advantage of experience. I’ve just been around — I’ve learned a lot, seen a lot — it’s more technical.”

The swingman is still producing at a high level in the fewest minutes per game of his career, and he’s the main facilitator of Dallas’s increasingly effective bench. As great as Nowitzki still is, Carter is the true key to the unit. His pick-and-roll with Brandan Wright is one of the most unstoppable plays in the league, and his ability to create his own shot in a pinch is invaluable, as it gives Nowitzki the chance to spot up and occasionally “rest” during an offensive possession. Carter is perhaps the only Maverick aside from Nowitzki and Monta Ellis capable of consistently creating shots not only for himself, but also for others. Everything he does is an attempt to make someone else’s job easier, which is a far cry from the way most once-superstars play toward the end of their career.

As a whole, the five-man second unit of Devin Harris, Jae Crowder, Nowitzki, Wright, and Carter is scoring 117.4 points and allowing just 87.8 per 100 possessions this season, both elite marks. The unit’s 29.6 net rating — the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions — is 5th-best in the NBA since Jan. 18 among lineups with at least 50 minutes played. (Jan. 18 was Harris’s season debut.) In addition, since the All-Star break, Carter is scoring 14.3 points per game. He’s at the helm of one of the best five-man groups in all of basketball. What’s the secret?

“Just knowing each other, being around long enough — I think that’s the biggest thing,” Carter said. “I’ve played with Devin before, Devin’s played here before with Dirk, B-Wright and I have developed a working relationship.”

Carter made a name for himself in the air, whirling and twirling and throwing down vicious dunks around the league. Many of today’s top stars were just kids when Carter and the Toronto Raptors were the must-see event of the year. Oklahoma City’s MVP candidate Kevin Durant, for example, was just 11 years old when Carter put on what was perhaps the greatest dunk contest performance ever in 2000.

But as perimeter players grow older, their athleticism gradually diminishes. Carter wasn’t going to be able to put on legendary in-game dunk shows forever, and he knew it. Instead of sticking to what he did best, he chose to reinvent himself. “Every year, you’re a little slower, but at the same time I can break the game down,” he said. “There might be a guy who’s faster than me, stronger than me, but that doesn’t mean he’s smarter than me.”

Perhaps the most unnoticed ways Carter has contributed to the Mavs’ success this season rests not in his scoring or playmaking ability, but in his level of effort when it matters most. For example, stats can’t measure how important this offensive rebound in a win against the Indiana Pacers was, or that this block clinched a win against Boston, or that his offensive board against Portland thwarted an epic Blazers comeback. Numbers can’t measure the worth of plays like these. But that’s the job of a sixth man.

“There’s a whole range of things that are required,” Carlisle said. “He’s one of the guys that have been willing to take charges, too. If you’re trying to put a percentage on guys in the NBA that are like that, I don’t know what it is. It’s not high.”

Let’s face it: in any awards race, whether it’s the Oscar for Best Picture or the Sixth Man of the Year, narrative matters as much or more than production or anything else. His coaching from the sideline and advice to younger players is something that cannot be measured with statistics. His willingness to avoid the spotlight, come off the bench, and play less minutes has turned the Mavericks second unit into one of the most efficient and effective offensive units in all of basketball. Carter might not “rev it up” as often as he used to, but even at 37 years old, he can still make the engine hum. And considering Carter was one of the faces of the league for 10 years, his seamless switch to the sixth-man role is as rare as it is impressive, but he’s only doing it to help his team.

“I know it’s a tough transition, tough for people to do and accept,” Carter said. “It’s all about winning for me at this point.”

Inside Dish: Q&A session with Vince Carter

Vince Carter talks Sixth Man

Vince Carter on what winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award would mean to him, how he's embraced that role here in Dallas, the history and prestige of the award and more.

Question: Did you consciously decide that you were going to focus on becoming a great bench player?

Answer: When I first came here, Coach and I talked about what my role was going to be. We have a lot of scoring power here in Dallas. I knew that coming in, and I told him that I would do whatever was asked of me to fulfill my role and to do my job. He basically told me that I would be great for the team off the bench. That I had the ability to give the team new life and a lot of energy off the bench. Being an older player and then hearing that I was the energy guy I was like, ‘Alright, whatever you say?!’ … But you know what, it has worked out for us. It really has been a challenge, but it is something that I am enjoying.

Q: Do you think historically that players of your caliber have been reluctant to become bench players?

A: Absolutely. I think guys that have been superstars, stars, or maybe even just starters on teams, have been reluctant or even refused to come off the bench. It is a hard thing to do. I am not going to say I did a happy dance when I started coming off the bench. It is a different world. It is like night and day. You know in the sports world, starting is so important to players. But to me, finishing the game is just as important. I mean, you can start a game but do you get to finish the game? For me, it was a tough pill to swallow not starting, but at the same time I still get to be a finisher. Not every night because we have so many players that can get the job done, but all-in-all I am still considered a finisher for our team.

Q: How do you get yourself ready to play from the bench?

A: Man, in the beginning it was really tough. The game would be starting and I would be sitting there thinking now what? How do I get myself going? It really was tough at first. But I started watching film of Jet (Jason Terry) and Vinnie Johnson. Guys that come in and start lighting it up as soon as they step on the floor. I just started seeing how they did it. Learned their pattern and just used it as my road map.

Q: You do a lot of coaching from the sidelines, is that to keep you engaged or more of a helping hand to your teammates?

A: Well, I think everyone can use a helping hand for sure. But I take pride in knowing the offense and defense. Knowing our coverage and where everyone needs to be. I think sometimes when you hear it coming from a teammate it might sink in better. As teammates, we are in the battle together. People always tell me that I am going to be a coach because I am always going into coaching mode. But I don’t think I want to be a coach. That’s weird right? I can’t see the future because I am still in the fire, but I don’t think I want to be a coach. And whether we are up or down, I am going to try and help to the end of every game. I live for it.

Q: Do you have more appreciation now of just how big of a superstar you were throughout your career?

A: Well, I appreciated it then for sure. But being older and watching how things work, you have a better understanding of what really was going on back then. Especially when guys from back then, or players coming into the league, talk about those times and how you might have influenced their careers. Plain and simple, it was fun. But I still use that feeling or mode when I play today. The walk from the bench to the scorer’s table it is a mental check of telling myself it is time to dominate. The mentality is still the same as back in my early days. My approach to the game is still attack mode, which helps me stay aggressive for the good of the team.

Q: Let’s be frank for a second, do you see value in the NBA 6th Man Award and do you want to win it?

A: Yes, I want to win it. Plain and simple. I think the buzz that was created last year about me winning the award brought the idea to my mind. And of course at the beginning of the year you don’t think of it, but as it starts to pop up again this year I wonder am I playing well enough to win it? Some of the things that we talked about before don’t really show up on the stat sheet. I just do everything I can to help the team win. I still want to play this game. I look at all of the players that have won the award in the past. J.R. Smith, Jet, Ginobili, and even Darrell Armstrong. I mean, I know that is going way back, but when I look at him and that team, he meant so much to them. Even when he wasn’t scoring or wasn’t having a good game, he still helped the team in a positive way by how he carried himself and how he would get things going into a play. I think the 6th Man Award is important to a team, maybe even as important as the MVP. It is not just about scoring. It is about making the right read defensively, or coming up with a big block, or being in good enough position to make a guy change his shot. Can I get to the lane and find the right guy with a pass? I challenge myself to do well in this position on every play.

Q: So this is a personal challenge within the game for you?

A: Absolutely, 100 percent. It’s about being productive. Like I have said all along. I challenge myself to do well in this position to help myself and help my team. I think when you come into the league you challenge yourself to be a starter, an All-Star, or possibly win an MVP. You want to be respected as a scorer or a dominate player and you work to make that happen. To me this is the same type of pressure that I put on myself as a bench player. Dominate, remember? So just to be talked about or considered as the 6th man with guys like Jamal Crawford who is one of the guys I love to watch… realistically, between him and Ginobili they should probably win it every year. Ginobili brings it all to the table. It is a tough competition so to even be talked about with these guys is great.

Q: Okay, last question… what about all the people that said your goose was cooked three years ago?

A: I remember, they were like stick a fork in him. Well, first of all, I just want to thank Cubes for giving me the opportunity to prove them wrong. I remember going through the lockout and just sitting there waiting to see if anyone was interested. A few teams called and said they were interested but they have to wait and see how their money shakes out or what they were going to do with their roster. Then you hear rumors about teams trying to decide between you or someone else, and they take the other guy. It was motivation for me. It made for some great summers. I had to work my ass off to prove I still have it. I think I have gotten better each year. I use my experience to dominate in a different way. It’s not about being the fastest or being able to jump the highest. It’s about being productive. I think I am doing that, and it’s because I look back at that time when everyone told me I should retire. Now I am being talked about as the 6th Man. It just makes you feel good and want to work harder.