Vince Carter proving key to Mavs' core

DENVER -- Everybody figured the Dallas Mavericks would need a veteran newcomer to emerge as a major impact player to have a chance to repeat with a renovated roster.

We all just had the wrong guy in mind.

As Lamar Odom continues to be a bit player, Vince Carter has established himself as a key part of the Mavs' core. That's been clear since the early stages of the season, even when the man who ranks 34th in NBA history with 20,750 points was getting his shot to fall, but it was never more evident than Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center.

Dirk Nowitzki looks like a 10-time All-Star again, scoring 25 points while performing to his Hall of Fame standards for the third consecutive game, but the main reason the Mavs clicked so well in the 105-95 win over the Denver Nuggets is they kept dumping the ball to Carter on the block.

If the Nuggets didn't double-team Carter, he picked on smaller defenders, scoring 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting. If the double-team did come, Carter consistently, unselfishly made the right decision, delivering a season-high eight assists and making several other smart passes that the Mavs credit as hockey assists while committing only one turnover.

"Sometimes we make it too hard on ourselves, just all the running around and a thousand pick-and-rolls," Nowitzki said. "If Vince has a matchup down there, that's easy. Just give it down there and play off him, and he's going to make the right decision."

By the way, Nowitzki figures the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Carter has a mismatch on the block basically any time he's defended by a shooting guard or fairly often when he's matched up with a small forward.

If it's one-on-one, Carter can go to work by bullying his way to the basket, exploding by a defender or launching his high-release fadeaway jumper. If help comes, there's a pretty good chance that possession will end with an open 3-pointer or a layup by a cutter.

The post-up threat at shooting guard is an element the Mavericks haven't had since Jerry Stackhouse's days as a sixth man of the year threat. Nowitzki also has fond memories of the Mavs running the offense through Michael Finley in the post during his early NBA days.

The fact that it works isn't the only reason it makes sense for the Mavs to run a lot of their offense through Carter post-ups. It's also a pretty good way to minimize the physical toll of a compressed season on their MVP.

There's no doubt Dirk remains capable of carrying the Mavs more often than not despite Charles Barkley's premature proclamation that the big German's days as a go-to guy were over. Nowitzki's 79 efficient points in the past three games serve as proof of that.

However, it's in the Mavs' best interest if they don't have to lean on Nowitzki too much, especially with an irregular season that is essentially a sprint leading up to the playoffs. The possessions on which he serves as a spot-up shooter instead of being part of pick-and-rolls or working in one-on-one situations could pay dividends down the road when the Mavs really need Nowitzki at his best.

Carter, 35, who came to Dallas for a mini-midlevel salary of $3 million to chase his first championship ring, affords the Mavs that luxury, at least in limited doses.

"You're talking about a Hall of Fame-caliber guy who's still got plenty in the tank," coach Rick Carlisle said. "As long as we can keep him in the mid-20s minutes-wise, I think he's going to be a guy who can really help us all year long."

Carter has taken pride in his post-up game since his college days at North Carolina, where, he points out, he actually played a little power forward and regularly practiced against the Tar Heels' big men. If anything, it's been an underutilized facet of his game in the NBA.

Until now. It's become a valuable piece of the Mavs' offensive puzzle, something we could see much more often as the season progresses.

"I've always felt comfortable down there," said Carter, who is averaging 11 points on .462 shooting for the Mavericks. "I've always felt like I could use it to my advantage. I'm just glad they're allowing me to do it."

It's not as if the Mavs are doing Carter a favor by running the offense through him on occasion. They need a newcomer to make a major contribution.

More often than not, Carter answers the call when he gets the ball with his back to the basket.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.