Don’t ever tell J.J. Barea he can’t do something. Defying odds has been his life’s work.
As only the seventh player of Puerto Rican descent to play in the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks’ reserve guard was originally undrafted by the NBA out of Boston’s Northeastern University and in 2006 gained a spot on the Mavericks only after being scouted while participating in a summer league.
In the first game of the Western Division finals Tuesday night, Barea once again confounded convention by driving through the Oklahoma City Thunder defense like a warm knife through butter - making layup after layup with deftness reminiscent of NBA star “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Barea’s 21 points off the bench were a critical factor in securing the Mavericks’ 121-112 victory at the American Airlines Center. At one point in the third quarter, Barea scored 10 consecutive points, which left a puzzled Oklahoma City searching in vain for answers.
And then there was the performance of Dallas’ power forward/center Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki's remarkable 48-point performance included sinking all 24 free throws he took – an NBA playoff record. In fact, he missed only 3 of 39 shots all night – going 12 for 15 from the floor. And again, his versatility in shot making proved crucial.
Nowitzki hit repeatedly from both the perimeter and inside. Midway through the fourth quarter, he was defended by Serge Ibaka, who could be seen flailing his arms in front of Nowitzki like an amateur snake charmer trying to tame the Dallas seven-footer’s deadly fall-away jump shots. When Nowitzki decided to turn and charge the rim, an Oklahoma City foul often followed.
Following the game, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, whose outstanding 40-point output was almost a footnote when contrasted with Dallas’ heroics, was asked by a reporter why Nowitzki could be so productive. Durant replied, “He’s a seven-footer who makes jump shots.”
The reporter followed up with: “Is that it?” Durant followed dryly, “Yeah.”
But that’s really only part of the story, Nowitzki and Barea worked the pick-and-roll to near perfection, decoying Oklahoma City’s big men to the top of the key, while Barea repeatedly exploited a clear lane to the hoop. Aside from Durant, Oklahoma City enlisted a quintet of players to guard Nowitzki, including big men Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Kendrick Perkins, as well as guards James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha – all with equal ineffectiveness.
Mavericks’ guard Jason Terry, not to be outdone, contributed 24 points; but his contributions far exceeded his point total. Together with Jason Kidd (who also added 11 assists) and Barea, his stingy defense was crucial in holding Thunder guard Russell Westbrook to 3-15 from the floor. The Mavs never allowed reserve guards Harden (12 points) and Daequan Cook (6 points) to get into any meaningful scoring rhythm. Oklahoma City’s bench contributed only 22 points to Dallas’ 53. This is a clear weakness for the Thunder, who have come to rely heavily on Durant outside – and Ibaka inside – for the bulk of their scoring. And with Westbrook’s inconsistency, it’s placed considerably more stress on their bench.
Even with their shortcomings, Durant’s efforts largely brought back the Thunder from a 16-point deficit to five late in the fourth quarter. But when a team like Dallas shoots 34-36 from the foul line, leads die hard.
The two teams square off again Thursday night on ESPN.