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Mavericks 97, Nuggets 88: Dallas steals a road game, keeping playoff hopes alive

The Mavericks' ragtag group won on the second night of a back-to-back, pushing them back into a tie for the No. 8 seed.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Keeping playoff hopes alive, the Mavericks stole a victory on the second night of a back-to-back in Denver, beating the Nuggets 97-88 on Monday to snap their three-game losing streak.

With nothing to lose, Rick Carlisle changed the starting rotation again, going with his regular starters -- Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Raymond Felton -- while adding the team's two youngsters, Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell. After a slow start, the move work. Anderson and Powell are athletes who work against a mobile Denver unit, particularly Powell, who makes more sense against Kenneth Faried than anyone else on the Mavericks roster. I'm not sure that warrants Powell another starting lineup nod, given Faried's uniqueness, but it worked on Monday.

Dallas took a lead late in the first quarter and never gave it up. It never felt like the Mavericks had complete control -- well, OK, they didn't -- but they kept making shots when Denver drew close. The cycle repeated itself several times, with the Nuggets making a mini-run that left them a point or a shot or a couple possessions away from taking the lead, only to see Wesley Matthews or Anderson hitting a timely shot or two that put Dallas back ahead. It wasn't a method convenience for calming blood pressure, but ultimately it worked.

Give the Mavericks credit -- despite playing deep into the bench, the team also committed just four turnovers for the entirety of the game. That's two turnovers shy of an NBA record, and incredibly impressive all things considered. (They took an unforced shot clock violation at the end of it, too.)

The win puts Dallas back in the playoffs, at least before you consider tiebreakers. The Mavericks' path is still more difficult than the other three teams, but it's not out of reach. Dallas needed this win to keep hope alive, and, well, hope is alive. It's being held for ransom somewhere maybe, sure, but it has a pulse. Don't count out Dirk or Rick Carlisle, I firmly believe, and for that matter alone, don't count out Dallas. Not yet, anyhow.

Dirk looked his age

If the Mavericks ran a front office that made successful transactions that put actual, bonafide talent around Dirk in his twilight days, this was the type of game where he would have played 20 minutes. His shot wasn't falling with any regularity, despite frequent open looks, and his defense suffered against quicker Denver units.

But missing two starters, with Rick Carlisle mining the very end of his bench for decent minutes out of anyone breathing, Dirk instead trotted out there for 33 minutes in Denver's altitude on the second night of a back-to-back. You hate that it has come to this, but Nowitzki came through anyway, hitting a couple second half jumpers that were important, 4-of-17 shooting line be damned.

With a proper day off, given the tear Nowitzki's been on, you have to hope that his groove will return Wednesday when the team comes home to play the New York Knicks.

Powell's future in the NBA

Let's talk more about Dwight Powell and what he could become. In his first NBA start, we were reminded of his athleticism several times, including a difficult alley oop dunk running down the lane where he caught a pass thrown behind him and still tossed it in.

That's Powell's best attribute right now, his athleticism. He's an average defender at best and hasn't shown innate shot blocking abilities, although perhaps that could improve. As a center, he's often overpowered in the post and as a rebounder. As a power forward, he just doesn't space the floor well enough.

Of everything listed, Powell improving his jump shot makes the most sense. The Mavericks work with him constantly, having him shoot threes throughout summer league and working with him before games. His mechanics are sound, if a bit too rigid. It hasn't worked yet -- Powell missed nearly everything on Monday. But if Powell could develop outside touch in any capacity, you could imagine him playing a role as a backup four who occasionally slides to the five against smaller opponents. In this scenario, Powell would be an athlete off the bench who can hit stretch the floor and rebound at above average rates for his position while giving Dallas small ball versatility.

But saying isn't doing, and sometimes, players just can't learn skills no matter how much practice they put in. Powell could try bulking up, but I don't see him ever becoming an effective, full-time center. No, power forward with range is where his future lies, if he can accomplish that. Imagine Jared Sullinger or Darrell Arthur. As hard as Powell works, we can all hope another summer in the gym will allow him to reach that ceiling.

Anderson's great game

Since we talked about Powell, we might as well praise Anderson, too. He was fantastic, showing a natural ability for where the basketball will be and making plays once he's there. His 11-point, four-rebound, two-block night was crucial for Dallas to hang in this game.

While it's true Anderson only had one good season shooting the ball in college, I still like him a lot as a 3-and-D cog off the bench for this team as soon as next year. A lot of rookies struggle shooting, especially when they're in and out of the rotation. Anderson has developed significantly since the beginning of the year -- he and Carlisle will both say so -- and I can't tell you the last time the Mavericks had a wing player able to dunk four times in a single game. Playoffs or no, it'll be fun watching Anderson get after it the rest of the year. He's earned those minutes during this season's final two weeks.