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Ball Don't Lie

Small wonder: J.J. Barea keeps finding and exploiting the seams

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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I'm sure Dallas Mavericks fans are used to it by now, but for the rest of us, no matter how many times we watch it, it never ceases to amaze. Just about every time he's in the game, J.J. Barea is acting like water on pavement and money in elections, seemingly finding every crack and crevice on yet another drive to the paint that'll result in a Mavericks bucket.

For many watchers, the amazement stems from the dominant and by-now well-known narrative of Barea-as-perpetual-underdog. After Barea went unselected in the 2006 NBA draft following a stellar career at Northeastern University due in large part to his small stature — he's listed at 6-feet tall, which is about as believable as Charles Barkley being listed at 6-foot-8 during his playing days — the Mavs signed him as an undrafted free agent to provide emergency guard depth and perform mop-up duty behind the likes of Devin Harris, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse and Anthony Johnson.

In the five years since, he's clawed his way up from sparingly used garbage-time novelty to a hard-earned role as an integral second-unit scorer and distributor, thanks to his relentless attacking of the basket and his skill at being able to both finish and find teammates after gaining entry to the lane. Barea shot 61.2 percent at the rim and ended 37.1 percent of the possessions he used with an assist during the regular season, according to Hoopdata.

At times this postseason, he's looked more to dish out of the paint, like in the Mavs' first-round Game 2 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, when his penetration yielded an early Peja Stojakovic 3-pointer and layups for Jason Terry and Brendan Haywood. His drive-and-kick game was on point pretty much throughout the Mavs' four-game second-round dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Barea tallied 22 assists against just four turnovers. His passes produced 17 made Dallas jumpers from 10 feet and beyond, including 11 3-pointers, a whopping seven of which came in that amazing Game 4 pasting.

On Tuesday night, obviously, Barea looked to score. Slashing into the lane again and again, he hit all five of his attempts at the rim, pouring in 21 points on 12 shots (including a dozen in the fourth quarter) in just over 16 minutes off the Dallas bench in support of a near-perfect offensive performance by Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki that gave the Mavs a 1-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals.

But for those who have gotten over the novelty of the little guy making good among the trees, the question still stands: How the hell does this guy keep getting to the tin?

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Thunder coach Scott Brooks had a succinct answer following the game, according to Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

"[Barea is] a talented young player that has improved every year he's been in the league," OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "He gets in [the paint] because he has a great handle, he has great quickness and he's crafty and they set great screens for him.

"He was able to collapse the defense and he made the three's. He's good."

ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly lauded Barea's skill as a ball-handler and decision-maker off the pick-and-roll on Tuesday night, but as shown in the clip above, the other four players on the Dallas offense have a lot to do with it, too.

With Nowitzki setting the screen at the 3-point arc, Barea sees that both Thunder defenders — Serge Ibaka, who drew the unenviable assignment of trying to check a German hurricane all night, and Eric Maynor, who was responsible for Barea — have stuck with Dirk in an effort to deny him the ball. He's able to use his speed to knife into the open space, a step ahead of a recovering Maynor, who (understandably, given Dirk's epic shooting) lingered a second too long on the screener.

Barea's in the paint before anyone in blue gets in his air space, due largely to Dallas' typically excellent floor spacing. Oklahoma City's wing defenders were none too eager to leave sharpshooters Terry and Stojakovic alone in the corners, and James Harden can't completely leave Haywood (with whom he's locked up on a mismatch) alone on the baseline, for fear that the sharp-eyed penetrator will spot the open big and dump the ball off for an easy dunk.

At that point, having beaten his man and gotten a free run to the backboard, Barea's decision is simple: Put it up. The result? A relatively easy layup, finished with flair in some traffic, that pushes the Dallas lead to 14.

Plays like that are a common sight when Barea's got it flowing, especially when he's on the floor with Nowitzki, Terry, Stojakovic and Haywood in a five-man unit that ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon notes has been "remarkably effective during the playoffs despite playing only 41 minutes together during the regular season":

With Terry and Stojakovic on the weak side, Barea and Nowitzki give opponents fits with a high pick-and-roll. With the opposing power forward forced to hug Nowitzki, Barea has been penetrating almost at will, resulting in a lot of layups for him and wide-open 3-pointers for Terry and Stojakovic. When Dirk gets the ball on the pop, it's a deadly option.

"As much attention as Dirk is drawing, guys like myself, Stojakovic and J.J. are going to have opportunities," said Terry, who was 8-of-16 from the floor and 4-of-8 from 3-point range. "Taking advantage of those opportunities is key."

Outside of figuring out how to coax Nowitzki into missing a shot, OKC beat reporter Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman termed finding an answer for Barea "the biggest thing the Thunder needs to do":

His speed gave the Thunder all kinds of problems. [...] The Thunder's help defense could help limit his effectiveness. But with the Thunder trying to stay home on shooters, he was able to do whatever he wanted.

With Dallas shooting a sterling 41.6 percent from 3-point land this postseason, the Mavs don't seem likely to go cold from long-range for very long, which could mean a lot more of that kind of spacing, one-on-one defense, late help and open driving lanes for Barea when he spells starting point guard Jason Kidd. If the Thunder can't figure out a way to close those seams without giving up open corner triples to lethal shooters, the smallest guy on Dallas' roster could continue to have a very large impact and create very large headaches for the Thunder defense.

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Video via The NBA Nation.

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