SAN ANTONIO -- Gregg Popovich, who tends to receive praise with all the grace of a one-man fast break featuring 270-pound DeJuan Blair, refused to believe Rick Carlisle was sincere with his Wednesday morning declaration that the San Antonio Spurs' sideline wizard deserves to be considered "Coach of the Century."
"Rick's a wise ass," Popovich grumbled about two hours before a blink-and-you-missed-it pregame ceremony to present him the Red Auerbach Trophy, commemorating his third NBA Coach of the Year award.
There's nothing sarcastic about Carlisle's Pop praise, but the Dallas Mavericks' coach is an awfully smart man himself. That has been apparent for ages, but it's especially obvious now that this Nos. 8 vs. 1 Western Conference matchup seems as if it's going to be a real series.
With all due respect to Phil Jackson, Carlisle is adamant that Popovich is indeed the Coach of the Century. That's a worthy subject for bar-stool and sports-talk discussions, but there's no doubt who deserves to be considered Coach of the Series so far.
It's Carlisle, and it isn't close.
The ingenious defensive plan concocted by Carlisle and his coaching staff is the primary reason Dallas rolled to a stunning 113-92 rout in Game 2 at the AT&T Center, earning the Mavs their first postseason victory since they clinched the 2011 championship with a radically different roster and, more important, evening this series.
The Mavs seemed to have no hope of slowing down the Spurs, a phenomenally efficient offensive team that had won nine straight games entering the series against Dallas. San Antonio lit it up for an average of 112.3 points while sweeping the recently completed regular-season series between the Interstate 35 rivals, raining in 42 3-pointers in the four games.
In this series, the Mavs made preventing open perimeter looks by Spurs role players such as Danny Green and Patty Mills their top defensive priority. It has worked wonders, as San Antonio shooters not named Manu Ginobili are just 5-of-25 from long range.
By switching on the majority of pick-and-rolls, the Mavs have gummed up the Spurs' typically splendid ball movement, holding San Antonio to an average of 91 points in the series and forcing an astounding 24 turnovers in Game 2, with Dallas converting those opportunities into 33 points.
"They're not comfortable out there," Mavs point guard Jose Calderon said. "That's the way we want it. I think that's the main thing: Just make them uncomfortable. If you let them play, it's a tough team. They've got rhythm, they've got shooters, they've got a little bit of everything. That's why we try to mix everything up just to try to get them out of their comfort zone.
"Sometimes it's not about who can guard one guy better. It's about the whole system. It's about five guys knowing what we want to do."
It's about coaching.
Carlisle has given championship-proven small forward Shawn Marion, the Mavs' defensive Swiss Army Knife, the primary assignment of guarding Tony Parker to mask the defensive flaws of the Dallas backcourt. Popovich's Spurs have failed to capitalize on the on-paper major mismatch of 6-foot-3, 185-pound Monta Ellis defending 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard, who has only 17 points on 5-of-16 shooting in the series and didn’t score from the field in Game 2 until the fourth quarter.
"We're mixing things up a lot and we're doing things that frankly we don't want to do, but we have to because they're such a potent team and they have such great players and they have the Coach of the Year," Carlisle said. "It's a monumental task, but we're in this thing to win."
It's a shocker that the Mavs left San Antonio with the series tied, although they felt as if they have had a 2-0 lead, having blown a 10-point lead in the last seven-plus minutes of Game 1. The superb coaching performance by Carlisle comes as no surprise.
Carlisle, the 2001-02 Coach of the Year in his first season as an NBA head coach with the Detroit Pistons, didn't receive a single vote this season. However, he's immensely respected in the profession, widely considered one of the league's best at game-planning and making adjustments.
It has been only a few years since Carlisle pulled off one of the remarkable coaching runs in NBA history en route to the Mavs' championship.
Carlisle outsmarted Phil Jackson in the Western Conference semifinals, sweeping the 11-time champion into coaching retirement, heavily using a lineup that featured Dirk Nowitzki and four reserves that the two-time defending champs never found a solution to stopping. Carlisle (with the help of a braintrust that featured three men who are head coaches in these playoffs: Toronto's Dwane Casey, Portland's Terry Stotts and Brooklyn's Jason Kidd) came up with a plan in the NBA Finals that turned perennial MVP LeBron James into a mortal. And every adjustment Carlisle made in those playoffs seemed to be a stroke of genius.
So, as sincerely as Carlisle sings Popovich's praises publicly, you know he privately relishes the chance to try to win another chess match against a legend. You'll just never get Carlisle to admit it.
"The coaching matchup is a wipeout, really," Carlisle said. "I feel like I have boulders piled on top of me. This kind of thing, you know you're playing the No. 1 seed and all that, you've got to dig as deep as you can. They're going to come up with some things up their sleeve for Game 3 and we're going to have to counter and be ready.
"I've said it: I think Pop's the greatest coach in NBA history, and I don't think it's close."
That's a reasonable opinion, but the fact is that Carlisle has been the better coach so far in this series, as evidenced by the Mavs leaving San Antonio with the series even against a clearly superior Spurs team.