DALLAS – Caron Butler(notes) strode off the court and down the length of the bench, slapping hands with his teammates, coaches and his team's billionaire owner. The thundering ovation washed over Butler, and, yes, this is what he and the Dallas Mavericks envisioned when they brought him here some two months ago. Big games. Big production. A chance to be relevant again.
The Mavericks freed Butler from all that chaos with the Washington Wizards, and he wanted to give them moments like this in return, delivering 35 points and 11 rebounds. He extended the Mavericks' season another two days, leading their Game 5 rout of the San Antonio Spurs, and afterward he made this defiant proclamation:
''Now it's a series.''
Butler's right. The Mavericks are deep and talented enough to rally from a 3-1 deficit, especially with a possible Game 7 at home. The Spurs weren't that much better in their three victories, and they know it. Gregg Popovich was sincere when he ripped his starters by saying they failed to match the Mavericks' ''mental and physical toughness.''
But there's another side to this story, too, and that's what happens if the Mavericks go on to lose the series. Mark Cuban took on nearly $40 million in additional salary obligations when he made the trade to acquire Butler, Brendan Haywood(notes) and DeShawn Stevenson(notes), and three games into the playoffs, it looked like the Mavericks were already beginning to question the return on their investment. Make no mistake: The midseason trade improved Dallas; getting rid of Josh Howard's(notes) sour attitude was liberating enough. But just a week into the postseason, the Mavs seemed to have already lost faith in what they acquired.
On Tuesday, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle spoke only about the positives. About how Butler is ''just a great guy'' and a ''great pro.'' And how ''you just love to see a guy like that succeed.''
But Butler's performance makes Carlisle's decision to bench him in Game 3 look even more questionable. Then, after Butler suffered through a rough first half in which he scored just two points and committed three turnovers, Carlisle didn't play him a single minute in the final two quarters. Was that the right time to take a stand? Or should Butler have been given another chance to play through his mistakes, either at the start of the second half or later? This, too, came just two games after Butler had scored 22 points in the Mavs' Game 1 victory.
The Mavericks also received a mobile 7-foot center in their trade with Washington and only now do they seem to understand how he fits in this series. Carlisle moved Haywood into the starting lineup and the results, for one game, at least, were impressive. With Haywood on the floor instead of the lumbering Erick Dampier(notes), Dallas was able to get out and run, which plays into the skills of Jason Kidd(notes). He also did a credible job defending Tim Duncan(notes) and showing on the Spurs' pick-and-rolls.
''It was a bit of a gut feel, a bit of a conversation with the staff,'' Carlisle said in explaining the switch, ''but I just figured the time was right.''
In truth, the time also would have been right on Friday. In the Mavs' critical Game 3 loss, Haywood played only 18 minutes. On Tuesday, he played 31.
This is what happens when a team ships off nearly half its roster at the trade deadline. Sometimes it takes a half-season for the new pieces to fit, sometimes it takes longer. The remade Spurs didn't start to come together until March. Kidd didn't really find his place with these Mavs until a season after his arrival, after they'd found him a new coach.
Butler also didn't arrive without flaws. His focus can drift and he'll dribble away possessions. But he's been through enough playoff battles for the Mavs to live with what he brings, both good and bad. Besides, what's the alternative? J.J. Barea is a nice change-of-pace player, but he's not going to help lead a team to a title. By not going back to Butler in Game 3, Carlisle exhausted both Barea and Kidd.
Butler didn't give Carlisle any reason to go away from him in Game 5. He was assertive from start to finish, shooting or driving quickly after catching the ball. ''We need him to attack,'' Dirk Nowitzki(notes) said. ''That's what I told him.''
Added Butler, ''I didn't second-guess myself.''
Butler played free and loose, and some film work between games also helped. He saw how the Spurs' double-teams attacked him. His performance was born more from the desperation of the Mavericks facing elimination than his Game 3 benching, but this is also true: He's a proud, tough player, the type who fits in this bare-knuckled rivalry.
''I play my best basketball,'' he said, ''when I'm angry.''
Butler's public-relations company has worked overtime, from Washington to Dallas, to prop him up as a star, pushing him for interviews on everything from his straw-chewing habits to Tiger Woods' transgressions. ''Caron Butler Picks Favre & Vikings To Win NFC Championship'' was the title of one news release. Once Butler moved here, the story shifted to how he was friends with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
All along, the hard truth was this: When Butler is healthy, his game usually speaks enough. To become a star, he need only play like one. The Wizards can lose in the second round and talk about how they've made progress. That doesn't work for the Mavericks, and Butler knows it.
''We're trying to win a title,'' he said. ''That's why we were brought here.''
Cuban understands that, too. After everyone hailed the trade following the Mavericks' Game 1 victory, he could already see the flipside. ''And if we lose the series,'' he said, ''everyone will call it a failure.''
If the Mavericks go on to lose, they could decide Butler isn't the right fit. Maybe they tinker with their roster again and try to put together a sign-and-trade package for a top-tier free agent. They'll have plenty of opportunity to make those decisions in the summer.
They'd be wise to show some faith in what they already have.