DETROIT -- There is a method to Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle's madness when he spins the big-man roulette wheel before each game.
"I'm going to give you a hint," Carlisle said after Friday's 98-89 road victory over the Detroit Pistons that pulled the Mavs back to .500. "I have the best analytics guy in basketball, and he's worth a few billion."
Of course, if Mavs owner Mark Cuban had had his way during the summer, the decision on whom to start at center would have been simple: just pencil dominant physical force DeAndre Jordan into the lineup every night.
However, when the emojis cleared, Jordan returned to Lob City and left Dallas scrambling to find a center. Months later, the Mavs are fighting for their playoff lives with a committee approach at the position.
Four players have started multiple times at center for the Mavs in their past 10 games, including Dirk Nowitzki during a stretch of small ball, an option that's no longer viable with Chandler Parsons out for the season.
On Friday night, Carlisle went back to Zaza Pachulia, the big man who started every game he played this season before being unceremoniously benched after a five-game losing streak last month. Salah Mejri, a 29-year-old rookie whose recent roller coaster has featured two straight double-doubles and two straight DNP-CDs in a 10-day span, played the most minutes in the middle.
And both of those bigs delivered for Dallas -- while Dwight Powell, who started the previous two games, was limited to a two-second appearance as a designated fouler -- as the Mavs won their third consecutive game to remain tied for seventh in the West standings.
"I told both of them after the game that they did a hell of job," said point guard J.J. Barea, who starred for a third straight game with 29 points on 13-of-23 shooting despite rushing to the Palace of Auburn Hills directly from the airport a day after his daughter was born in Dallas.
Pachulia and Mejri didn't post eye-popping lines in the box score. Pachulia had 6 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists, attempting only one shot from the field in 22 minutes. Mejri had 6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 assist in his 24 minutes.
But both big men were instrumental in the Mavs' win, responding to the challenge of Carlisle's "Be Ready" mantra.
"We need everybody," Carlisle said. "Going forward, we're a walking adjustment. We're going to have to adjust to whatever situation we're up against."
Pachulia, a workhorse most of the season who had three single-digit-minute outings and one DNP-CD in the past few weeks, got the call to start because his bulk and savvy was needed against 280-pound All-Star Andre Drummond. His primary job was to prevent Drummond from dominating.
Drummond put up his league-leading 63rd double-double of the season with 12 points and 17 rebounds, but he had to work hard for his buckets. He was only 5-of-15 from the field.
Carlisle's hacking strategy on Drummond helped, too. Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy opted to pull the notoriously poor free throw shooter from the game both times the Mavs intentionally fouled him, going with backup big man Aron Baynes, including in crunch time. Major advantage, Mavs: Baynes was minus-25 in 12:33.
The most memorable of Drummond's missed field goal attempts occurred with the Mavs up 10 early in the fourth quarter, when the lanky, 7-foot-2 Mejri rejected him at the rim.
Drummond definitely wasn't the only Piston who had a problem scoring with Merji on the court. According to NBA.com data, Detroit shot 31.8 percent from the field during Mejri's minutes. That's pretty impressive impact for a guy who didn't play a single second in the previous two games.
"After starting a few games and you don't play at all, you think that you're out of the rotation," said Mejri, who was inactive for many of the Mavs' games earlier in the season. "Like, 'I'm back to the suit again,' you know? But [Carlisle] talked to me today: 'Stay ready.'
"I'm trying to be ready. Whenever they need me, I will do my best to help the team."
Pachulia can certainly relate. Nowitzki frequently refers to Pachulia as "the ultimate pro," but the drastic recent reduction of his role has bruised Pachulia's pride and tested the professionalism of a 13-year veteran who was having a career season in a contract year.
There was a glimpse of frustration from Pachulia on Friday. After sitting the entire second quarter, he got subbed out of the game less than five minutes into the second half. Assistant coach Melvin Hunt was in the unfortunate spot of being the first man to greet Pachulia upon his return to the bench and nearly got his hand ripped off by a the big man's high-five. Pachulia tossed his towel to the floor when he sat down at the end of the bench.
But Pachulia immediately picked up the towel and collected himself, cheering for Mejri and the rest of his teammates until checking back into the game about a dozen minutes later. The Pistons had pulled to within five points at that point, but Pachulia helped the Mavs slam the door on Detroit.
"I can't worry about things that I can't control," Pachulia said. "That's the best approach, so I've been doing that. Here we are, six games to go. Hopefully, we're going to make the playoffs, and it's going to be special for me and for everybody.
"It's definitely not time to be selfish. It's not time to worry about yourself. Just worry about winning, bottom line."