MINNEAPOLIS -- A week ago, the outlook looked dark for the Dallas Mavericks.
They had lost 10 out of 12 games, falling three games below .500 and smacking rock bottom when they were routed in Sacramento. Forward Chandler Parsons had undergone season-ending knee surgery. Point guard Deron Williams had been diagnosed with a sports hernia that might prevent him from playing again this season. The playoffs seemed like a slim possibility.
All Dallas has done since then is roll off four straight wins to climb over .500 again and into seventh in the Western Conference standings.
Give veteran point guard J.J. Barea and rookie wing Justin Anderson, a pair of players Dallas desperately needed to fill the shoes of the injured starters, a lot of credit for the Mavs’ terrific turnaround.
“Barea’s been here before,” coach Rick Carlisle said after Sunday’s 88-78 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. “He’s been heavily relied upon, and he’s had to fill in in big situations. So he knows what this is about.
“Anderson has learned gradually, and his teammates have been a big part of his development. He’s been an attentive learner, and he’s a really big part of what we’re doing right now.”
Barea, one of the heroes in the 2011 NBA Finals, had the best offensive week of his career, averaging 23.5 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor. He often carried the Mavs offensively while Dirk Nowitzki, the face of the franchise, dealt with a mini-funk (27.6 percent shooting during the week).
Barea has lasted a decade in the league as a sub-6-footer because of his ability to create as a pick-and-roll ball handler. He’s an especially difficult cover when he makes opponents pay for going under screens, as he did all week, hitting 12 of 25 3-point attempts.
“I’m just in a great rhythm,” Barea said after a 21-point, six-assist performance Sunday. “Coach and my teammates are doing a great job of putting me in good situations, and I’m taking advantage.”
Added Nowitzki, who had a forgettable 4-of-18 outing: “He’s just a really, really smart pick-and-roll player. We’re going to put him in as many pick-and-rolls as we can, and he’s been terrific. He’s not going to shoot the ball like that all the time, but he’s been on one of those stretches like earlier in the year where everything he throws up looks good. Hopefully, he can keep it going.”
Anderson was an afterthought for most of the season, as Carlisle-coached rookies tend to be. He was inactive or got a DNP-CD in 26 games.
Those days are done. Desperate for energy and athleticism, Carlisle inserted Anderson into the starting lineup the night after the Sacramento stinker. The Mavs haven’t lost since.
Anderson’s stats during the streak aren’t spectacular, as he has averaged 7.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. But there’s no doubt that Anderson, whom the Mavs believe can develop into a longer, much bouncier version of Jae Crowder, has been making a major impact.
Dallas had been horrible defensively during its 2-10 skid, allowing more than 113 points per game. With Anderson as a starter, the Mavs have held four straight opponents to less than 90 points, their longest such streak since January 2012.
“I’m just trying to do the little things, be the glue to help this team continue to roll,” Anderson said after scoring nine points, on 4-of-4 shooting, grabbing a career-best 10 rebounds and adding another sensational swat to his highlight reel in 24 minutes against the Timberwolves. “I’m just trying to stay humble and play as hard as I can every possession.”
Anderson’s athleticism has become a source of comedic fodder in the Mavs’ locker room. His 43-inch vertical leap might be more than the rest of the Dallas starters combined. Nowitzki jokes that his rebounds have decreased since Anderson became a starter because the kid is “getting them on another level where I can’t go to.”
Maybe Carlisle should have given Anderson more minutes throughout the course of the season, but the rookie admits he wasn’t ready for a significant role until recently. He’s no longer just an athletic freak who looks lost a lot of the time. He understands and embraces his role and has realized that simplicity is a key to his success.
“He plays so hard and he’s starting to learn the game a little bit better,” Barea said. “He’s getting better every game.”
As Anderson said, experience is the best teacher. If he keeps this up and Barea stays hot, Anderson will probably get some playoff experience, something that seemed awfully far-fetched just four games ago.