In the first half, it was looking like Carmelo Anthony was going to have one of those nights.
The Knicks superstar went into halftime with 22 points already to his name, on 9-of-15 shooting, and the Mavs held a narrow 52-51 lead. Already playing without Wesley Matthews, who suffered a right hip strain on Sunday and was unavailable Wednesday night, Dallas also lost point guard Deron Williams in the first half when he suffered a great toe sprain. That even further shuffled an already jumbled rotation even more.
But there is opportunity in adversity, and Justin Anderson took advantage of the extra minutes that came his way. Anderson helped limit Anthony to just eight points in the second half on 4-of-9 shooting. He also turned it over four times.
“Anderson really stepped up in the second half, really guarded the heck out of Anthony,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “He really took a quantum leap defensively in the second half.”
As it turns out, the second-year Maverick consulted with Matthews during nearly every timeout, taking whatever counsel the Mavs’ defensive ace would offer his way. Anderson said Matthews’ biggest piece of advice to help him make that “quantum leap” was simply to play tougher.
“The last time we were in New York, I remember guarding (Anthony) and I tried to give him space and he just happened to miss,” Anderson said. “So I thought I’d come into it with the same kind of strategy, kind of give space and give a late contest, but he got it.
“So (Matthews) was telling me to be a little more physical and do my work a step earlier. I was a little step behind to start, when I first came off the bench. He was great for me, just telling me to stay physical and kind of crowd him, and make him take a tough, contested one or put it on the floor, and that’s when I got my help. Wesley was tremendous for me tonight.”
Sometimes even getting into a scorer as talented as Anthony, forcing him out of his comfortable spots and into more difficult situations, still won’t limit the damage. When a player like that is in the zone, there’s not much you can do as a defender. As Dorian Finney-Smith put it earlier this season, sometimes you’ve just got to tip your hat and move on. Both he and Anderson were tasked with defending Anthony tonight, and they did what they could to make things tough, and then they learned to live with the results. (Finney-Smith, too, has said Matthews has been a good mentor.)
“That’s what was tough for me in the first half,” Anderson said. “I think he hit like a tough fadeaway, and I got a contest, and he made it. I let it kind of get to me a little bit, just because I want it so bad. I want to prove to my teammates and our coaches that I can defend really well. That stuff ate at me a little bit.
“But I kind of breathed when I came out, and recollected my thoughts at halftime, and I wanted that challenge. I asked coach to keep me in and let me guard him, and I was thankful that he gave me the opportunity to go out there and continue guarding him for the rest of the game.”
Anderson’s opportunities have not come with the consistency that fans might have expected this season. He closed the 2015-16 campaign strong, and played some of his best basketball in the playoffs against Oklahoma City. But the addition of Harrison Barnes and the surprising play of rookie Dorian Finney-Smith have limited Anderson’s minutes of late. Before Sunday’s win against the Lakers, he’d played fewer than 10 minutes in each of his last seven appearances, receiving two DNP-CDs during that time.
In his last two games, however, Anderson has played nearly 36 minutes combined and is averaging 15.0 points and 4.0 rebounds. He took six free throws against the Lakers and seven more last night against the Knicks, an indication that he’s becoming more aggressive driving to the basket, one of the things Carlisle has urged him to do ever since he arrived to the NBA.
Anyone who has followed the Mavericks during the Carlisle Era will know the coach’s mantra, “stay ready,” is meant to be taken seriously. Despite Anderson’s lack of playing time during that recent stretch of schedule, the 23-year-old knew he had to do what he could not only to remain prepared in the event that he does play, but also to perhaps force his way back into the rotation.
“I’ve been working out really hard before and after games, late nights, and just putting myself in the position to be in shape and ready for whatever moment,” Anderson said. “Whenever I get the opportunity, just go out there and play hard, making the simple plays, just trying to show my coaches and my teammates that they can rely on me when they need me. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
With Matthews, Williams, J.J. Barea, and Dirk Nowitzki all not traveling to OKC tonight with the Mavericks, Anderson should receive significant minutes. For him, it’s another chance to take advantage of that opportunity.