Kids come through when Mavericks need them most

DENVER -- Donnie Nelson fibbed a bit when he boasted about the offers the Dallas Mavericks received for Dwight Powell and Justin Anderson, the two youngest players on the roster.

The truth is that the Mavs didn’t receive any firm offers, much less the mid-first-round picks that Nelson claimed.

Maybe Nelson just let his imagination race a bit, envisioning the kind of prospects Anderson and Powell could be with consistent playing time. If that’s the case, Nelson has plenty of company among the Mavs’ fan base.

We might find out a lot about the Mavs’ kids the rest of the season, whether or not that includes a postseason appearance. Fighting their way back in the playoff picture is the Mavs’ priority, but that’s absolutely not mutually exclusive with giving minutes to Anderson and Powell.

In fact, if Monday’s much-needed 97-88 win over the Denver Nuggets is any indication, the young bucks are the Mavs’ best bets to breathe life into their playoff hopes.

“You’re going to see some of these guys going forward, no question about it,” said coach Rick Carlisle, who has earned a reputation over the years of being extremely reluctant to rely on young players.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And a 2-10 skid featuring dreadful defense certainly qualifies as desperate.

Carlisle, continuing his search for solutions as the Mavs try to scrap for a playoff spot, shook up the starting five for the fifth time in five games. He injected youth and energy into the lineup with Anderson at small forward and Powell at center.

“We’re obviously not a team that’s blessed with athleticism, so those two guys were great for us,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “They’re active, they’re young, they’re quick. Those two were great. We definitely need some more of that going down the stretch.”

Added J.J. Barea, who led the Mavs with 18 points and 11 assists in his return to the bench: “They just go and they’re super athletic. When those two don’t play, we’re an old, slow team. Face it. You put those two in, and we’re back with athletic guys. Hopefully, they can keep going.”

The message Carlisle hoped the changes got across to the Mavs: Energy could solve a lot of their problems.

“I felt right now that we’ve got to make the point that anything other than your best effort and your best energy is unacceptable,” Carlisle said. “These two guys you know are going to go hard unconditionally. They delivered tonight.”

Powell and Anderson didn’t just deliver hustle and energy. They produced.

Powell, a second-year player making his first NBA start, had a career-high 16 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in 30 minutes.

On an off night for 37-year-old legend Nowitzki (10 points, 4-of-17 shooting), the 24-year-old Powell filled in as a go-to guy in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting. That scoring flurry included a couple of midrange jumpers, which have been low-percentage shots for Powell, a significant contributor as a backup center early in the season who had barely played since the All-Star break before this road trip.

“Powell has been a victim of us looking at all these veteran guys,” Carlisle said. “It was his time to get another shot.”

Anderson, the 21st overall pick in the 2015 draft, had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal in 24 minutes. His buckets tend to be of the highlight variety, and this night was no exception with three dunks, one an especially pretty putback. He also had a “Wow!” block on Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic to kill a Denver transition possession.

Simply put, the rookie with the 43-inch vertical makes the kind of plays that nobody else on the Mavs roster can. And the moments when the 22-year-old Anderson looks lost -- such as a blown defensive assignment that resulted in a wide-open 3, Carlisle cursing out the rookie during a timeout and Anderson riding pine the rest of the game in a March 20 overtime win -- are occurring less and less often.

“You can see that the game has slowed down for him a little bit,” Nowitzki said. “He doesn’t move at 200 miles per hour. It’s only 150. He still plays hard, but he makes good decisions now.”

At this point, with Chandler Parsons out for the season, Anderson contributing is a must. He’s the only healthy small forward on the roster, and he’s responded to the opportunity.

Anderson has a chance to be a rare species: a Dallas draft pick that develops into a quality NBA player. There has been a whopping one of those in the last decade, and they shipped Jae Crowder to the Boston Celtics in the disastrous Rajon Rondo deal.

The Mavs hoped Anderson could become a more athletic version of Crowder, a tough, defensively minded wing. Anderson has embraced being a “glue guy,” understanding that his primary job is to be a max-effort pest who makes simple plays on offense.

“Forget the fact that he’s a rookie,” Carlisle said. “He’s delivering. He’s delivering with hard, simple play and playing within himself. He’s earned the respect of his teammates, and he’s earned the respect of the coaching staff too.”

Fans can have conversations about whether Carlisle wasted time with Powell and Anderson riding the pine for most of the season. The players want no part of that discussion.

“I definitely trust Coach and his decisions,” Powell said. “I understand it’s for the best. We talked about it and he told me to stay ready and specific things I needed to continue to work on.”

Added Anderson: “I could easily say things like, ‘I could have been doing this all year,’ but who wants a teammate like that? Who wants to coach anyone like that? That’s just not in my DNA. Coach knows what he’s doing with my development, and I trust him with it.”

The Mavs’ kids just want to seize the opportunity they’ve been presented now. Powell and Anderson have a chance to boost a franchise that really needs them to make the playoffs and for them to prove they can play significant roles in the immediate future.