Highlights: Mavs vs. Bucks

Harrison Barnes led all scorers with 34 points as the Mavs outscored the Bucks 12-1 in OT to win, 86-75!

Starting point guard J.J. Barea led the Mavericks in rim attacks in Sunday’s 86-75 OT win against Milwaukee.

Second on that list was someone you might not expect (although the headline does sort of give it away): Harrison Barnes.

The 24-year-old sudden slasher attacked the rim 16 times in the game, according to Mavs analytics, second-most on the team. He scored a career-high 34 points. Those two numbers are not unrelated.

Through only six games with the Mavericks, Barnes’ role in the offense has already reached an unprecedented level. He’s taken at least 17 field goal attempts in three games so far this season, already surpassing last season’s total of two and nearly matching his career total of four. The 26 shots he took against Milwaukee represent a career-high total.

He wasn’t supposed to be the Mavs’ go-to guy, per se, but Dirk Nowitzki’s absence due to a sore Achilles has given Barnes the de facto title, anyway. He had a season-high 75 touches against the Bucks, many of them in isolation. No matter what anyone says, Barnes has been the No. 1 option this season. It might not be “his team,” but he’s the team’s leading scorer and shot-taker.

That’s a role he never came close to sniffing with the Warriors, where he was always the third, fourth, or even fifth option on the court at any given time. Barnes was more a role player for the Warriors than a featured player, but he’s absolutely flourished so far with the Mavericks, sporting an All-Star line of 20.8 points and 6.5 rebounds on 49.0 percent shooting from the field and 34.8 percent from deep. With an expanded role comes expanded personal confidence, and the rest of the guys in the locker room have done their part to encourage him to keep attacking.

“I try to be aggressive,” he said after the Bucks game. “That’s what coach asks of me, that’s what my teammates have confidence in me to do that. When I’m shooting the ball, make or miss, it’s good to have that confidence behind you.”

Personal success aside, Barnes has made a concerted effort to attack the rim more often rather than settle for mid-range jumpers, although those shots are falling at nearly a league-leading rate. Of the 42 players attempting at least 5.0 pull-up shots per game, only Barnes and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan have converted more than 50 percent of them, per SportVU.

But a jump shot can be a fickle beast. Driving the lane and finishing at the rim, though, is a much more consistent way to generate offense not only for the player himself, but for his teammates as well. So rather than falling in love with what’s working for him right now, he always kept his eye on reaching the next phase of his game as soon as possible.

That’s what made Barnes’ relentless attacking such a positive thing to witness on Sunday. After early games against Indiana and Houston — the fifth-year pro even performed well in those games, scoring 50 points combined — it seemed like he could have scored more, and been even more effective, had he put the ball on the floor and forced his way to the rim. He said so himself after the home opener against the Rockets.

His almost immediate response to his own criticism has been equal parts unexpected and unbelievable. Young players are not supposed to develop this quickly. In one week, he went from over-reliant on the mid-range J to pulling off moves like this against soon-to-be All-Stars.

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And this.

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That second bucket, scored against Giannis Antetokounmpo, came with less than 20 seconds left and tied the game.

In both examples, Barnes goes directly at the defense and finishes with his weaker left hand. Those are not easy plays to make, especially in traffic and, in the latter play’s case, with the game on the line. And he pulled off both moves without the help of a ball-screen, which is even more encouraging in some respects. You’d like to see him able to play in the pick-and-roll, for sure, but if he’s able to beat players off the dribble without aid, suddenly the late-game offense becomes much more simple. No need for plays when you can just dump it to a player at the nail and let him go to work. That’s how the Mavs closed games en route to winning the title in 2011.

That isn’t to suggest Barnes will reach the level Dirk Nowitzki has in his career, but it does show that a player can consistently thrive in isolation situations if he puts the work in. And, according to Andrew Bogut, there’s little doubt that Barnes is totally committed to his craft.

“He’s still going to have his ups and downs, he’s still settling into his role, being the No. 1 option on the team,” Bogut said. “But I told people from the start: He puts the work in. He puts extra time in the gym whenever he can. He takes this profession very, very seriously.”

Postgame: Harrison Barnes

Mavs F Harrison Barnes chats with Skin after his career-high 34-point night against the Bucks.

Part of the reason why Barnes’ development process seems to have been coming sooner than later this season is because he’s played so much more at the power forward position than at small forward, his traditional position. Barnes just seems so much more comfortable at that spot, where he can attack slower-footed players without giving anything away on the defensive end because he’s long and strong. Last season in Golden State, Barnes had a 67.3 effective field goal percentage when playing power forward next to Bogut, per nbawowy.com, and this season he’s maintained a 51.2 eFG percentage in those situations. That appears to be a drop-off, of course, but given the added offensive responsibility and nature of his attempts (i.e. barely any 3-pointers), that 51.2 mark is stellar.

Going up against slower players gives a super-athletic player like Barnes a huge advantage when it comes to breaking his opponent down off the dribble. He flashed the ability to drive the ball in the season opener against a bigger player like Thaddeus Young, and in this play he smartly does so immediately after receiving a pass, with Young still in motion…

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…But doing so in isolation, without assistance from ball movement, is an entirely different beast…

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…And showing off a nice left-handed running hook is even better.

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Mirza Teletovic is more of a traditional 4 in terms of athleticism, but Jabari Parker (the defender in the first example) is closer to a 3 type, though Barnes still maintains a quickness advantage. He was able to dribble past both like they weren’t even there, which is no easy feet, especially when working in such close quarters. Many NBA players can blow by defenders if they get a running start from 30 feet and have acres of space to work with, but Barnes began most of his drives against the Bucks from inside the 3-point arc and from rest. Tremendous explosiveness is required to dribble around long players in those scenarios.

The next step for Barnes in his growth is handling added pressure from double-teams or more attention from opposing defenses. He was able to make a couple nice reads in those situations against Milwaukee, but at other times on Sunday and especially Friday against Portland it looked like he got a bit ahead of himself and passes or shots went awry. That’s a natural step for a go-to type of player to make in his development, however. Dirk Nowitzki went through a similar process from 2005-08.

“That’s another part of the progression, just getting used to that,” Barnes said. “When they bring a double or you get into the lane and you see bodies, just find the kick-out guy and make a good pass. I made a few mistakes with that in the Portland game, but I feel like I got a little bit better tonight.”

Sometimes it takes years for a player to add moves against double-teams to the arsenal. Sometimes a player is never able to do it. But, at the rate Barnes is going, it might only be a matter of, like, days. And it’s important he do so, because if he continues to score at this rate in 1-on-1 situations, his isolations won’t stay isolated much longer.

That will only open up more opportunities for the Mavs, and it will give Barnes the freedom to create for himself and for others based on how the defense is set up. And the defense will set up based on where he is and what he’s doing. His job will remain difficult, but it will make things easier for his teammates. The offense will be alright as long as he’s in command.

You know, just like a go-to player is supposed to be.

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