A couple of months ago, a Mavericks’ opponent came through town and their chief personnel man was asked what the Mavericks need to make the leap back to respectability complete.
“A point guard,” was the answer.
That was no slap against Luka Doncic, obviously. The executive knew the second-year point guard was going to handle the ball a lot. Rather, what he meant was that the Mavericks were destined to lean too heavily on Doncic as a primary ballhandler during the regular season and, eventually, the wear and tear would take its toll.
Even at 20 years old, players get run down over the course of time.
Fast forward to Thursday night when coach Rick Carlisle had to tweak his starting lineup because of injuries and inserted wily veteran J.J. Barea for his first start of the 2019-20 season. It came on the second day of 2020 and it was his first start since late in the 2017-18 season.
But it was a clear sign that Carlisle knows exactly what other executives have voiced concerns about the Mavericks.
“It was an adjustment to get J.J.’s playmaking into the game and get Luka off the ball a little bit more to start with, and then to match up with their guys,” Carlisle said. “J.J. played well. And I really liked every time he’s gone into a game this year. He’s brought juice, he’s brought attitude, he’s brought experience.
“Going into last night, there were some unknowns with their lineup. We had decided to go a certain way regardless.”
The situation could be the same Saturday against Charlotte since regular starters Kristaps Porzingis (left knee) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (right hamstring) are expected to miss the game.
That could mean more time with the Barea-Doncic backcourt pairing. Barea knows his role will revert back to spark plug off the bench when Hardaway regains his health. But Carlisle has found that playing Barea and Doncic together has been beneficial this season.
“They’re both experienced playmakers and they have a synergy and a connection,” Carlisle said. “They’ve played well together every time they’ve been on the floor together this year. Last night, particularly the beginning of the second half, there were some things they did together that helped us.”
Brooklyn in previous games had been going small without several key players, but when they switched up and went bigger to start the game, Carlisle elected to stick with his original plan and go with Barea.
The result was that Doncic’s substitution pattern changed significantly. Instead of playing all or virtually all of the first quarter, he came out with 6:30 left in the first quarter. After a rest of nearly four minutes of clock time, he returned late in the quarter and played through until the 8:39 mark of the second quarter.
After a 2:06 rest, Doncic came back to finish the first half.
If this substitution pattern appears familiar, it’s because that’s virtually the same way Carlisle substituted for Dirk Nowitzki during his prime years.
On Thursday, it worked perfectly as Doncic took over in the fourth quarter, clearly full of energy.
Carlisle said that playing Doncic longer stretches of minutes earlier in games had “compromised” him late in some games.
And, obviously, the Mavericks need their best player to be at his best during crunch time.
“I think we did a good job of getting him away from the ball a little bit, getting him some rest during the game and during the fourth quarter,” Barea said. “He was able to be fresh and finish the game for us.
And that’s something especially when they pressure him like that – he wants the ball – but if he can be away from the ball a little bit, I think it will be good for him for the end of the game.”
Barea has played sparingly this season, but he’s proven that whenever he’s needed, he will be ready and contribute. He’s averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 assists in nine games, putting in just under 15 minutes per game.
He said he found out about starting against the Nets the night before the game.
“Coach texted, told me to be ready, I might start you,” Barea said. “Bring the energy and we went from there.
“It was fun, you know. It’s the first game all season I knew I was going to play. It was good to be out there, good to help out, especially at home. To start at home, have some fun and get the win, it’s awesome.”
And, given the injury situation, it may not be the last time Barea and Doncic pair in the backcourt.