Mavericks vs. Timberwolves

J.J. led the way once again with 21 points as the Mavs knocked off the T-Wolves for their fourth straight win.

Coming into the season, a tight race for the playoffs was all but guaranteed. That’s been the name of the game out West this entire millennium. Nothing is ever set in stone, and nothing is decided early.

What you probably didn’t expect — and I’m not sure who else could have — is the Mavs would be part of the largest, longest, closest playoff races in years. With five games left in the season, five teams in the West are separated by three games. The Mavericks, currently two games behind fifth place and one ahead of ninth, will play against three of them before all is said and done.

One week ago, the Mavs were coming off a 22-point road loss in Sacramento, preparing to play the second night of a back-to-back in Denver. Deron Williams and Chandler Parsons were injured with no timetable for the former and the season lost for the latter. The Mavericks were three games under-.500 and had lost 10 of their last 12. They needed to win.

So Justin Anderson got the start.

The rookie scored 11 points and blocked two shots in his second career start. Dwight Powell, the 24-year-old backup big man, scored a career-high 16 points in his first-ever start.

Two days later against the Knicks, J.J. Barea scored 26 points off the bench to lead the Mavs to a win. Anderson hit a key go-ahead layup with a couple minutes remaining.

Two days later, Salah Mejri scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench, blocking two Pistons shots and holding Detroit to 31.8 percent shooting while he was on the floor. Barea poured in 29 points.

And two days after that, Barea scored a team-high 21 points, Anderson grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, and Mejri blocked a team-high two shots as the Mavs won 88-78 against Minnesota, arguably their best defensive performance of the season.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the Mavericks’ season, and in one week we have witnessed the realization — though unexpected — realization of the front office’s dream: This is a deep team that can win with or without a lineup full of star players, and even with a struggling Dirk Nowitzki, who shot above 40 percent just once in the last four games, all Mavs wins. Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews — who’s been smoking-hot from deep lately — have done their part, but everyone else has stepped up, too, and they deserve plenty of credit for what’s transpired this week.

J.J. Barea, Player of the Week

Barea was named Western Conference Player of the Week for his efforts, averaging 23.5 points and 6.8 assists in the four wins. That alone tells you all you need to know about the Mavericks this season: It’s not about who’s not playing. It’s about who’s ready to step up and perform.

The Puerto Rican point guard, in particular, has done just that. Before Friday’s game in Detroit, it was revealed that Barea was away from the team to witness the birth of his daughter, Paulina. He arrived to arena a couple hours before tipoff, early enough to catch a brief nap before warmups. He responded with his biggest scoring night in three months. He described the week as “one of the best ever.” He carried the momentum over to Minnesota, as well.

“I’m in a great rhythm,” Barea said yesterday. “Coach and my teammates are doing a great job of putting me in a good position, and I’m just taking advantage.”

Added Dirk Nowitzki, his pick-and-roll buddy: “He’s an incredible pick-and-roll player and that’s what he does. … He’s really smart and takes his time and knows exactly what he wants. He’s just a really, really smart pick-and-roll player. He’s been terrific.”

Just how great a rhythm has Barea enjoyed? He scored 20 points or more in three straight games for the first time in his career, and the 94 points he scored this week were the most in any four-game stretch of his career. He did it efficiently, too, shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 48.0 percent from deep. He led the Mavericks in scoring in all four games.

Justin Anderson, Human Highlight Reel

Earlier in the season, any Anderson-related discussion was speculative: When would he get minutes? Is he ready to contribute? But in just a few weeks, the conversation has shifted from the curious to the obscure: How does Rick Carlisle feel about Anderson’s one-handed rebounds? How does Anderson feel about Dirk Nowitzki and Zaza Pachulia jokingly accusing him of stealing rebounds?

It doesn’t take a basketball savant to appreciate Anderson’s contributions to the Mavs in the last week-plus, and he’s already provided enough evidence to suggest he has the potential to be a force on the defensive end. He’s blocked seven shots and grabbed 36 rebounds in his last six games — including a career-high 10 boards Sunday against Minnesota. When a young player contributes in a big way like Anderson has, it can be tempting to look into the future. Anderson won’t fall into that trap, though.

“I’m just trying to stay humble and just play as hard as I can every possession,” he said.

If he continues to crash the boards and protect the rim the way he has in recent games, he’ll have to play hard on some more possessions per game moving forward. At 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan and 43-inch vertical leap, Anderson is one of the premier athletes in the league. He’s already displayed tremendous instincts around the rim before, but Sunday against Minnesota he added two more highlights to the reel. First there’s the block:

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And then there’s the put-back dunk.

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Anderson’s acrobatic put-back finishes these last few games haven’t been a turn of luck, either. There’s a strategy to it. “Offensively, Dirk has such a soft shot that it just falls right off the rim in a perfect position every time,” he said. “It’s never a line drive, so you can just go get it at the highest point and try to tip it in.”

Plenty of other players have contributed during the four-game winning streak, most notably Matthews, Mejri, Zaza Pachulia, and Devin Harris. Their contributions should not go unheralded.

But the fact that there are so many names to mention is kind of the story here. Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, and Rick Carlisle’s collective dream for this team was for it to be a well-balanced machine, whose wins were fueled not by one or two player but by eight, 10, or 13, however big or small. That’s been the case these last four games, even without two starters.

That hasn’t come to pass unnoticed by Anderson, either. Toward the team’s 88-78 win in Minnesota, Anderson turned to owner Mark Cuban and equipment manager Al Whitley and pointed toward the scoreboard, showing the team’s scoring breakdown. Barea had 21. Pachulia had two. Dirk had 13. Matthews, 19. Six for David Lee, 16 for Harris, and zero for Mejri in his 19 minutes. It’s not that those individual numbers mattered — in fact, they didn’t. That’s the point.

“That’s winning basketball,” Anderson said. “You got all these guys in double-figures, guys playing for one another. Right now we’re playing winning basketball. It’s not anybody worrying about their individual stats. We’re just out there making the right plays.”

No matter who plays, who starts, who dresses, and who doesn’t, if the Mavs continue making those right plays, they’ll be just fine as the season’s end draws closer.

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