With 53.9 seconds remaining in Monday night’s 124-107 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Carlisle just wanted to make sure Dalembert’s effort was properly recognized and appreciated by the American Airlines Center crowd, waiting until between free throws to sub out the center by himself.
There have been plenty of times this season when Carlisle looked like he wanted to kick Dalembert in the butt as the maddeningly inconsistent big man walked by the coach en route to the bench. In a rare, refreshing moment Monday, Carlisle joined the crowd in applauding Dalembert, who delivered an 18-point, eight-rebound, two-block, 24-plus-minute performance that ranks among his best in a Mavs uniform.
“He’s proven he can take us to a higher level,” Carlisle said. “Tonight, he did.”
Why doesn’t Dalembert play like that more often? That’s what frustrates coaches, and it explains why the Mavs are his fifth team in five seasons.
Nobody expects Dalembert, who has averaged 7.8 points per game in his career and 6.2 this season, to put up double-digit point totals on a consistent basis. Scoring nights like this one, when Dalembert had four dunks and was 7-of-8 from the floor, are a bonus.
But the Mavs desperately need it to be the norm for Dalembert to play with the kind of energy, aggression and intensity he had against the Cavs.
“I always said when he’s active, rebounding, blocking some shots, we’re a different team,” said Dirk Nowitzki, who had 23 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes. “He was phenomenal. He was alert. He was blowing plays up. He was meeting guys at the rim. He was rebounding. He blocked some shots. He was phenomenal.”
With this version of Dalembert, the Mavs are confident they can make the playoffs and be a tough out. They have good reason to believe that given Dallas’ 22-13 record with the only true center on the roster in the starting lineup and a 10-4 record when Dalembert plays at least 24 minutes.
That 10-4 record is particularly impressive, but Dalembert doesn’t quite seem to understand why he doesn’t get at least half the big-man minutes on a regular basis.
“I don’t make the decisions about the minutes or anything like that,” Dalembert said. “I want to play. The goal is winning, so there are times where other guys are playing well.”
Oh, but Dalembert does have a big say in his playing time. When he shows up mentally and physically -- and on time, which has been an issue a couple of times this season -- Carlisle is happy to give Dalembert the bulk of the big-man minutes. When he’s lackadaisical and undisciplined, Carlisle tends to stare daggers at Dalembert as the big man walks to the bench.
“He’s a good guy,” Carlisle said. “We just have to keep reinforcing with him the things that we need him to do.”
The Mavs really need Dalembert to do those things in their next game, a road matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, the team they’re fighting for eighth place – representing the final playoff spot -- in the Western Conference at the moment. The Grizzlies win by bullying teams inside, and Memphis’ Marc Gasol might be the best all-around big man in the NBA.
“We’d love for Sam to be active again,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously, he’s not going to get 18 and eight a night, but we love him active. If he goes after shots and contests shots at the rim, rebounds, gets some tip-outs and finishes around the rim, we’re a different team. He knows that.
“We’ll see what happens Wednesday.”
If Dalembert matches his Monday intensity, the Mavs like their chances. If he doesn’t, well, nobody will be surprised.