Mavericks searching for solutions while scrambling for a playoff spot

PORTLAND, Ore. -- This is not the time to be tinkering with the lineup, experimenting with all kinds of combinations in search for solutions. But that’s the bad hand of cards that Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has been dealt.

That was the case even before an MRI revealed a torn meniscus in the right knee of combo forward Chandler Parsons, thus removing one of the best cards in Carlisle’s hand for the rest of the season. Now the Mavs, who used their third starting lineup in three games and their 15th of the season on Wednesday, are forced to try to figure out the rotation on the fly while fighting for one of the West’s final playoff spots.

That battle got a little bit tougher with a 109-103 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, which dropped Dallas to 35-36. That puts them tied for seventh in the West with the Utah Jazz, 1½ games behind the Blazers and just a half-game from falling out of the playoff picture.

If you’re searching for a positive spin, feel free to point out that the Mavs are 6-4 without Parsons this season. Just understand there’s a fluke factor involved in that record, and this outing illustrated just how painful Parsons’ absence could be for the Mavs the rest of the season.

“I’m not going to make an excuse,” Carlisle said. “We were missing Parsons a lot of the year, and we’ve had a pretty strong winning record without him. I think we can win games with the team that we have. I’d much rather have Parsons, but that’s not in the cards. I like our guys, and I’ll figure it out.”

Figuring out the starting five isn’t too tough. Removing Parsons from the mix pretty much rules out playing Dirk Nowitzki at center, as the Mavs did in the last three games Parsons played. Carlisle will go with a three-guard lineup and a traditional center. For now, the choice at big man is lanky, energetic, 29-year-old rookie Salah Mejri, with consummate pro Zaza Pachulia getting his first DNP-CD of the season Wednesday.

Mejri wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination against the Blazers. He committed four turnovers and missed six of 12 shots from point-blank range, including one layup attempt that clanked off the shot clock. Even so, he definitely wasn’t a problem for Dallas. He posted his second straight double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) and blocked at least a few shots, despite being officially credited with only one. His plus-minus (plus-4) matched reserve guard J.J. Barea's for the best on the team.

“He’s doing a lot of positive things,” Carlisle said. “He’s making some mistakes, but he’s doing a lot of positive things. I like the way he played.”

The performance of guard Raymond Felton, who is essentially assured a starting spot in Parsons’ absence, was a problem. He had two points and one assist in 20 minutes. His plus-minus: a team-worst minus-16. Suffice it to say, the Mavs need much more from Felton.

They also can’t afford for point guard Deron Williams to have off shooting nights. He has to replace Parsons as the efficient second scoring threat who complements the ageless brilliance of Nowitzki, who had his ninth straight 20-plus-point performance and put up 12 of his 21 points during a fourth-quarter comeback that fell short.

Williams, who had torched the Blazers for a total of 61 points in the Mavs’ two overtime wins over Portland, had 12 points and 11 assists but was only 4-of-15 from the floor. Carlisle praised his point guard’s aggressiveness, but the Mavs need Williams to perform at the All-Star level of his past.

“I’ve just got to play better,” said Williams, who had season highs of 31 points and 16 assists on Sunday in an overtime win over the Blazers.

That said, this is perhaps the Mavs’ biggest problem without Parsons: Who the heck is going to play the backup power forward minutes?

Surviving when Nowitzki sits has always been one of Carlisle’s most difficult challenges. That’s especially true at this point. The past few months, those minutes went exclusively to Parsons, who thrived in the role. He feasted on mismatched power forwards who struggled to defend him off the dribble and as a knockdown 3-point shooter.

The Mavs simply don’t have any other NBA-caliber power forwards on their roster. Charlie Villanueva is the next man up. The upbeat vet is a great guy to have on the team, as long as he doesn’t actually have to play. He’s a shooting specialist who has made only 24.3 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, including 11 straight misses since he most recently swished one Feb. 19.

The Mavs were outscored by seven points in Villanueva’s nine minutes on the floor Wednesday. That comes as no surprise, considering his net rating (minus-8.7 points per 100 possessions) is by far the worst on the Mavericks this season.

That causes many Mavs fans to cry for Dwight Powell, another DNP-CD in this loss, to get some playing time at power forward. Carlisle tried that earlier in the season, and it didn’t go well. According to nbawowy.com data, Dallas has averaged a dreadful 91.9 points per 100 possessions with Powell at power forward. His shooting struggles -- he has hit only 30 percent of his attempts outside of 10 feet this season, according to NBA.com stats -- kill the spacing of the offense.

Not that Carlisle is ruling out giving Powell, a good athlete who plays hard, another look. When it comes to the rotation right now, Carlisle’s mantra is, “Everything’s on the table.” He even played 6-foot-5 shooting guard Wesley Matthews some at power forward in Portland.

“At this point, we’ve got to throw everybody out there,” Nowitzki said. “Everybody has got to be ready. From game to game, there’s going to be different decisions made. At this point in the season, we’ve just got to let it all hang out and do it by committee. Whatever needs to be done, we’ve got to do. We’ve got to make it work.”