DALLAS -- Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle may have opened the door for Caron Butler to return in time for the Western Conference finals, just three days after team president Donnie Nelson called that idea "next to impossible."
"He's now at a point where he's dunking the ball and he's making more and more progress," Carlisle said Tuesday. "When he's back, he's going to be back 100 percent. Timetable-wise, I don't know exactly when that's going to be. I'll tell you what, it's [Butler's aggressive rehab] something that's energized our team, really since he took his knee cap and shoved it four inches back into place on Jan. 1 in Milwaukee."
That's when and where Butler ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee. He underwent surgery a few days later in Dallas. The Mavs quickly ruled him out for the season, but Butler has consistently set a goal of returning during the playoffs. Butler has dropped hints since the first round that he could soon be cleared for physical contact, which would seemingly pave the way for the rugged small forward to put on the uniform.
However, prior to the start of the second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Carlisle adamantly ruled Butler out for the duration of the series. On Saturday, the day before the series-clinching Game 4, Nelson said a return by Butler at any point moving forward would be "next to impossible."
Yet, when asked for clarification, specifically if he was prepared to rule Butler out for the Western Conference finals, which start either Sunday or Tuesday against Oklahoma City or Memphis, Carlisle cut off the conversation.
"I'm not going to talk about a a timetable because I'm not a doctor," Carlisle said.
But, Carlisle does consult with doctors that constantly examine and monitor Butler's progress.
"I'm not going to comment on it," Carlisle said.
The Butler topic came up when Carlisle was asked if he could have imagined the team making this deep of a run if he had been told earlier in the season that he would lose Butler and Rodrigue Beaubois would be a non-factor.
Carlisle then delivered a 2-minute monologue on Butler's inspiration to the team and how Beaubois has contributed despite being displaced to the end of the bench.
"I believe both guys have had an impact," Carlisle said. "Caron, just simply being here every day and doing what he's doing is an incredible source of inspiration for all of us. I can't even begin to explain to you his positive attitude, the work that he's putting in; he's in here two or three times a day."
The dunking Carlisle brings up isn't something entirely new for Butler in his recovery process. He's been working on the court with assistant coaches for some time now. However, as of recently, he had not started working on lateral movement, an area crucial to playing in games. It's not clear how far he has progressed in that area.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.