In retrospect, there are many moments when you could say the aging Dallas Mavericks saw the young Oklahoma City Thunder come of age and zip by them in Game 3 of their 2012 NBA Playoffs first-round series. Subjective as it may be, this is how we try to process a young team blowing the lids off an older one that once had their number. It's not enough to just say that it happened.
All this is to say that you can take this cherry-picking with however many grains of salt that you'd like. To me, though, there was a distinct moment when the Mavericks went past the point of desperation and faded into the night. It was the moment when, having been beaten down at their own game, they had no choice but to play Oklahoma City's. That was when the series was lost.
Well, more accurately, it was two moments. One came in the second quarter, and one came midway through the third quarter. These were the moments when Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle punted and played what I called the "cry for help lineup" on Twitter -- a hyper-small lineup of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki that had played less than seven minutes together all season.
The first moment happened with just over seven minutes left to go in the second quarter and the Mavericks trailing by double digits. Tired of going down with guys he can't trust, Carlisle decided that, size and combinations be dammed, he was going to go down with guys he could trust. So, he decided to go with the "cry for help" lineup.
Logically, the lineup made little sense. A guard combination of Kidd, Terry and Carter provides little perimeter resistance, and Nowitzki, though he may be a smarter help defender than most realize, simply can't protect the rim. But Carlisle was uneasy with anyone other than those five players at the time, and he figured that this was the only way to counteract Oklahoma City's massive speed advantage.
Oklahoma City outscored Dallas by five points during that stretch, and Carlisle went away from it. But later, with the game really slipping out of his team's grasp, Carlisle decided once again to roll with the guys he trusted. This time, the group made up five points really quickly, but then Kidd got tired and had to be taken out. Carlisle replaced Kidd with Delonte West to stay small, and the rout was on. The small lineup essentially worked for a bit because it was different, but everyone knew it simply wasn't a sustainable way to win.
It's worthwhile to question why Carlisle decided to go to such unfamiliar lineup combinations in the biggest game of his team's season, but there's a psychological element to his decision-making that sounds familiar. In 1991, it became clear to Chuck Daly and the Detroit Pistons that their bullying tactics just weren't going to work against the Chicago Bulls anymore. In desperation, Daly tried going super-small, playing guards Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson together for long stretches. He did it because those three were actually playing well, but also because he felt like he had no choice. His big men were too slow, and if he was going down, he was going down with his best guys. It wasn't the smartest tactical decision, but it was what resulted once Daly felt like he was backed into a corner.
In playing Kidd, Terry, Carter, Marion and Nowitzki together, Carlisle was essentially making the same declaration Daly did. That was the moment when Scott Brooks and the rest of the Thunder should have known they had broken the Mavericks' spirit.
Once the Mavericks sacrificed their identity in the name of desperation, the job was done.