Carlisle: This is why we drafted Larkin

Was this a breakout performance by Shane Larkin or just an impeccably timed flash of brilliance by the Dallas Mavericks’ first-round pick?

That remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the massive lift provided Friday night by the itty-bitty Larkin was one of the primary reasons the Mavs pulled out a 110-107 win against the Phoenix Suns in a game that could be meaningful for playoff seeding.

It’d be stretching the truth for anybody to say they saw Larkin’s 18-point, five-assist outing coming. After all, he had scored in double figures only once in his brief NBA career and had at least five assists only twice. And Larkin had a total of 18 points in his previous six appearances.

Now the 5-foot-11, 176-pound Larkin is on a list with a few big names, joining Jamal Mashburn, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki as the only 21-year-olds in franchise history to put up at least 18 points and five assists in a game.

“This is why we drafted him,” coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. “We felt he could have this kind of impact.”

Of course, Larkin’s development was sidetracked by a broken ankle suffered the day the Mavs’ summer-league team left for Las Vegas, an injury that sidelined him until mid-November. And it’s really not Carlisle’s style to rely on a rookie point guard who is learning on the job even more than his draft classmates.

But circumstances dictated that Larkin got his most extended playing time of the season Friday, and he took full advantage. The Mavs outscored the Suns by nine in Larkin’s 27 minutes, with him shooting 6-of-8 from the floor, 2-of-3 from 3-point range and hitting four clutch free throws in the final 79 seconds.

“I just had the mentality to go in and play my game when I got in the game,” Larkin said on the Mavs’ television broadcast. “My teammates had confidence in me. The coach had confidence in me to keep me in there and give me the ball late in the game.”

Let’s get one thing straight: Carlisle really didn’t have much choice but to keep Larkin in the game.

Starting point guard Jose Calderon got in foul trouble and eventually left the game for good because of a bruised right knee. Fellow rookie backup Gal Mekel was in Dallas recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Veteran Devin Harris was wearing a sport coat on the bench, perhaps for the final time this year, as his season debut could come as soon as Saturday night against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Larkin, the lone point guard available for most of the second half, made a case that he should be considered for a significant role regardless of the health status of the Calderon and Harris.

“Shane responded in a big way,” Carlisle said.

We’ve seen glimpses of Larkin’s potentially game-changing quickness sprinkled throughout the season. This, however, was by far the most assertive and aggressive Larkin has been since leaving Miami after being named the ACC player of the year as a sophomore.

If Larkin had looked like a wide-eyed rookie against the Suns, the Mavs would have returned to Dallas with a two-game losing streak, sitting a game behind Phoenix in the West standings with no chance to earn the series tiebreaker.

But he answered the bell, allowing the Mavs to split the road trip and stand in seventh place in the West at the midway point of the season, seven games above .500. He looked like the player the Mavs thought they were getting with the 18th overall pick in the draft.

“This team has a lot of veterans,” Larkin said. “You have to prove yourself to them every single day as a rookie. I’ve just been putting a lot of hard work in. The coaches stay on me. They don’t take it easy on me. All the hard work and all the things they taught me paid off today.”

With Carlisle as the coach, you know nothing is promised for the rookie tomorrow, especially with Harris on the verge of being added to the mix. But it'll be hard to keep Larkin on the bench if this performance is a sign of things to come.