Harrison Barnes beginning to relish role as Mavs’ go-to closer down stretch

DALLAS — Putting the Dallas Mavericks on his back Wednesday night and lifting them to a hard-fought 115-111 victory in Charlotte, versatile forward Harrison Barnes continued to show he’s able and more than willing to carry the team down the stretch of games.

Scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter, including a stretch of nine straight Dallas points at one point, Barnes finished a 9-of-13 shooting night with 25 points and 11 rebounds. He also lifted the Mavericks (15-28) to a second straight win to complete a difficult home-road back-to-back. And according to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, the 25-year-old Barnes once again showed why he’s taken the torch from 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki as the team’s No. 1 option late in games.

“[Barnes] closed the game. I mean, he was absolutely brilliant,” Carlisle proclaimed while praising the forward’s late-game execution. “He hit on a variety of shots — twos, threes, drives. And look, that’s what great players do. I was real proud of him. You know, he had a pretty good rhythm going all night, and we just needed to get the ball in his hands.

“He’s the guy that’s going to be that guy,” the coach added. “You know, he’s going to be involved in some kind of action. He’s either going to touch the ball, or he’s going to be a key screener and probably touch the ball. Look, he’s had a year and a half of this now. Last year was a good initiation for him on a team that had struggles, had injuries and a tough schedule early. He was really thrown into the fire early and learned a lot about what it’s all about. But don’t forget he’s a former starter on a championship team, and he was a great player in college. This shouldn’t surprise anybody.”

Last season, Barnes produced a career campaign after spending his first four years with the Golden State Warriors. He also came into his own after inking a reported four-year deal worth $94 million that summer during free agency.

With Nowitzki sidelined for 25 of the Mavericks’ first 30 games during the 2016-17 schedule due to a nagging right Achilles strain, Barnes averaged a team-high and career-best 19.2 points per game while connecting on 46.8 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the three-point arc. He also clocked a career-high 35.5 minutes per outing, playing in the team’s first 79 games before being shut down for the remainder of the season. Barnes led the Mavs in scoring 37 times last season after doing so with Golden State just six times in 307 games, posting seven 30-point performances in ’16-17 after just one such outing during his first four years. He’s since picked up where left off at this season, averaging a team-high 18.8 points, career-best 6.7 rebounds and career-high 2.1 assists per game while suiting up in all of the Mavs’ 43 outings thus far. And as Wednesday night demonstrated, Nowitzki believes Barnes has emerged as the team’s top closer late in games.

“Well, that was already obvious for us last year. We run everything basically down the stretch through him,” Nowitzki said while praising Barnes’ late-game closing abilities.

“You know, down the stretch when we need a bucket, usually we put it in Harrison’s hands. And he was fantastic (Wednesday night),” Nowitzki added. “I mean, his three ball was on, his midrange and his post-up game. He was fantastic.”

Operating as the team’s closer has been a process for Barnes, going from a role player with the Warriors to the No. 1 option in Dallas. However, it’s a role Barnes now says he’s beginning to relish.

Barnes is averaging 2.3 points and ranks just 45th in the NBA in clutch situations this season, which measures the last five minutes of a game that’s decided by five points or less. He’s also shooting 49 percent from the field in those situations and 37.5 percent from three-point range, leading the Mavs to a 7-21 record under those circumstances. Still, as Wednesday night showed, Barnes is ready for the big moment when his team needs him most. And according to Barnes, he’s gradually progressed into a better closer for the Mavericks throughout this season.

“You know, I liked the matchup with (Frank) Kaminsky. I just tried to be aggressive and attack the rim,” Barnes said while summing up Wednesday night. “Once I saw a few shots drop, I was kind of in a rhythm after that. Coach [Carlisle] kept going to me, and I was able to convert.

“It’s been a journey,” Barnes candidly added. “I’ve fallen short in that capacity a lot more times than I’ve come through, so I definitely have an appreciation seeing both sides. But I’m just thankful, like I said, for the trust. I mean, to have teammates and coaches work with you, take the time, help you understand angles and help you understand which shots to get to. In those situations, you’re probably not going to get a layup, so that’s one thing I’ve had to do. But just figuring out how to get enough space and how to get a clean look, I think that’s the progression for me. I feel like I’ve improved at that this season.”

Note: The Mavericks will now return to American Airlines Center on Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers. The game will tip off at 1 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting Mavs.com, or by calling (214) 747-MAVS.

Injury updates:

Dorian Finney-Smith (left knee quadriceps tendinitis) — out
Seth Curry (stress reaction, left tibia) — out
Nerlens Noel (left thumb surgery) — out