Quirky Carlisle keeps Mavs in contention

If Bill Belichick coached basketball, he would be Rick Carlisle — quirky, aloof, underappreciated and well-traveled.

Belichick and Carlisle are like malt liquor, an acquired taste.

The truth is, Carlisle is probably best suited to be a football coach. The NFL’s military-style leadership model, sleep-in-the-office lifestyle and Xs-and-Os-centric coaching are perfect for Carlisle.

He’s short on people skills and long on X-O. He’s the antithesis of Phil Jackson and Zen.

Lucky for the Dallas Mavericks — they needed an X-and-O fix in the NBA Finals.

With the Mavs trailing 2-1 in their best-of-seven series with the Miami Heat and having been dominated in all three games, Carlisle was forced Tuesday night to empty his coaching playbook. He had no choice. He coached the Mavericks to a series-evening 86-83 victory.

For three games, the Mavs struggled with solving Miami’s defense, slowing Dwyane Wade and finding the right offense-defense balance and rotation.

Things were made worse when Dirk Nowitzki woke up Tuesday morning physically weak with a 101-degree temperature, a sinus infection, a bad cough.

The Mavs were toast. Carlisle was desperate.

He did crazy (stuff). He inserted J.J. Barea into the starting lineup. Barea has been a nightmare in the Finals. He can’t finish at the rim. He can’t knock down open perimeter shots. He left his game in the Western Conference playoffs.

Carlisle went with Barea to change his rotation and rest Shawn Marion. With Barea in the lineup, DeShawn Stevenson would come off the bench and defend Wade or LeBron James.

Carlisle also tied Peja Stojakovic to the bench. Peja left his shot in Los Angeles. The few minutes Carlisle would have wasted on Peja, he gave to Brian Cardinal. Well, at least “The Custodian” didn’t turn the ball over and escort a Heat offensive player to the rim.

The Barea and Cardinal moves didn’t really pan out. That’s fine. Down 2-1 and with Dirk sick, a coach has to try something.

And Carlisle did find minutes for Stevenson. In Dallas’ two victories, Stevenson has played a combined 48 minutes. In Dallas’ two losses, Stevenson has played 29 minutes. Stevenson played 26 minutes Tuesday. He knocked down three 3-pointers. He played solid defense on James and Wade.

Where Carlisle really made his mark Tuesday was in the fourth quarter, when he mixed in some zone defense. The Heat scored only 14 points in the final 12 minutes. The zone slowed Wade’s penetration, and it masked Nowitzki’s exhaustion.

Carlisle coached a masterpiece. He reminded me of one of the reasons I liked Dallas all year and in this Finals series. He’s one of the few coaches — like Jackson, Doc Rivers — who can make a legitimate difference on the final score. Carlisle is worth a few points.

As a lifelong Indiana Pacers fan, I’ve been an admirer of Carlisle for quite some time. I watched him do for Larry Bird what Belichick used to do for Bill Parcells.

Bird had the basketball intellect to “get” Carlisle. In the late 1990s, as an assistant coach for the Pacers, Carlisle coached Bird’s squad all the way to the NBA Finals. When Bird tired of pretending to be a head coach and stepped down, he couldn’t talk Pacers president Donnie Walsh into making Carlisle the next coach.

Walsh chose Isiah Thomas. A year later, the Pistons chose Carlisle. Although Carlisle led the Pistons to back-to-back 50-win seasons and an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals, and won a Coach of the Year award, the Pistons fired him after only two seasons. Based on newspaper reports at the time, most everyone in the Pistons organization hated Carlisle. He was smug and weird.

Detroit replaced Carlisle with Larry Brown.

OK, think about that. The Pacers and the Pistons chose NBA divas — Thomas and Brown — over Carlisle.

Again, Rick Carlisle is an acquired taste.

Larry Bird has it. Shortly after returning to the Pacers as team president, Bird fired Thomas and hired Carlisle.

In his first season, he led the Pacers to 61 victories and the Eastern Conference finals. In his second season, he was the leader of the squad that brawled with the Pistons and their fans inside the Palace. Two years later, with the Pacers struggling on and off the court, Bird had to fire Carlisle in a move driven by public relations.

Bird did Carlisle a favor. Mark Cuban and the Mavericks scooped up Carlisle. This veteran Dallas team is perfect for Carlisle. Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry are three of the smartest players in the league. They get it done with their heads, not great athleticism. They “get” Carlisle. His quirks and his aloofness don’t bother them.

Will Carlisle’s adjustments get Dallas two more victories? Maybe not. But his moves Tuesday night earned Dallas two more opportunities to adjust.