Highlights: Harrison Barnes scores 24 points

Watch all of Harrison Barnes' team-high 24 points, including his game-winner, against the Clippers.

If the first third of the 2016-17 season has been a symbolic passing of the torch from Dirk Nowitzki to Harrison Barnes, Friday’s win in Los Angeles was not nearly as subtle a glimpse into the past, present, and future of those two players and this organization.

Nowitzki, who made his long-awaited return to action after missing the previous 14 games with a sore left Achilles, shined bright as ever in the first half, scoring 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in less than 15 minutes of work. It was vintage Dirk – the pick-and-pop jumpers, pump-faking defenders into oblivion to create separation for a mid-range J, catch-and-shoot 3s, and bullying smaller guards in the post.

You couldn’t have asked for a better performance from the 38-year-old face of the franchise. Even the crowd – which included more Mavericks fans than expected – couldn’t help but watch and cheer with enthusiasm as the legend dazzled in just his sixth appearance this season.

But then, in the second half, it was Nowitzki’s turn to watch with the rest of us as Barnes took over as the focal point of the offense and attempted to lead Dallas to victory. The fourth quarter was all about the first-year Maverick, right down to his team’s very last possession, when he hit a game-winning floater with 3.7 seconds left and the shot clock expiring.

When the smoke cleared, it was Mavs 90, Clippers 88. Barnes scored a team-high 24 points, including six of the team’s final 12, all in the last six minutes of the game. You know, exactly what we’ve grown so used to watching Nowitzki do for nearly two decades. Is it any coincidence they combined to score 41 points?

“You get the ball in the hands of your best player, and you give him the opportunity to win the game,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “And that’s what Harrison did. It’s his first game-winning shot for us, and I’m predicting it’s gonna be one of many.”

Barnes: the team’s best player. Not so subtle.

“It means a lot – the confidence from the coaches, the confidence from my teammates that they trust me to take that shot,” Barnes said. “I’m just gonna work as hard as I can just to continue to deliver.”

Barnes has made a habit of delivering all season long for Dallas with games on the line. He’s now 4 of 6 from the field when shooting to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime, per Basketball-Reference, and 17 of 27 to tie or take the lead at any time in the fourth or OT. That’s the sign of a closer, of a featured, go-to guy – or, in other words, exactly what many people did not think Barnes could ever become when he signed with the Mavericks this summer.

“He’s been fun to watch,” Nowitzki said after the game.

“We’ve run some of the same stuff that we’ve run for me for years, we run for him now: high post iso. He’s mastered it.”

It’s true. The Mavericks’ late-game offense hasn’t changed one bit without the Big German, who’s been one of the league’s greatest fourth-quarter players over the last 15 years. For the last decade, his typical crunch-time looks have come from the elbow or the “nail,” the center of the free throw line. It’s a difficult area to work out of for an offensive player, because you don’t have much room to drive past your opponent, and often it leads to a contested mid-range shot. However, it’s just as difficult to defend, because it almost eliminates the option to send a double-team. Doing so in the middle of the floor can lead to extremely easy looks for other players, if the ball moves well. The Clippers chose to double Barnes a few times in the fourth, and it led to a Salah Mejri and-1 layup against a point guard and a wide-open Dorian Finney-Smith 3-point attempt.

“A lot of teams, they just get mixed up with that coverage: show, switch, blitz, whatever,” Barnes said of teams’ shifting strategies against that set. “I think we’ve done a good job of capitalizing on that confusion.”

The Mavericks ran virtually the same play for the last six minutes of Friday’s game: high pick-and-roll to force a defensive switch, and then post Barnes up at the nail. Every. Single. Time. Many times, the Clippers would switch a guard onto the Mavs’ forward, which gave him a pretty significant size and strength advantage. Teams have been doing that more and more against Barnes as of late, as earlier in the season it didn’t take him long to prove most power forwards aren’t quick enough to stay in front of him. Barnes admitted smaller guys are tricky, but he’s demonstrated recently that, unlike earlier in the season when he struggled against those matchups, he won’t get fooled again.

“You just have to be patient,” he said. “Sometimes you get a little guy on you, and you think, ‘let me see if I can get to the rim quickly,’ and you turn the ball over. (It’s about) being patient, trying to back the guy down, and just getting to your spot.”

The prospect of Barnes consistently burning both big men and guards has to terrify opposing defenses, especially because Nowitzki can still do the same exact thing. It’s astonishing just how quickly Barnes has shown his quality in the mid-range, though. Nowitzki came into the league as a terrific shooter, but he didn’t seem to develop his legendary late-game offense so quickly. And at this point in his career, the German has seen it all. He knows exactly what it takes to be a big-time closer, and he thinks Barnes has it.

“As a go-to guy, you’ve got to have a great mid-range game, because you’re not going to get an open 3 to win, and you’re not gonna get all the way to the basket to win,” Nowitzki said. “So you’ve got to be able to create mid-range stuff, and he’s a master at it. He can go both shoulders, and he can pull up off the dribble.”

That’s the mechanical side of closing a game, but the mental side is just as difficult, if not more so, to reckon with. When the game is on the line, it’s on you if you win and it’s on you if you lose. The Mavs’ 9-21 record might lead you to believe otherwise, but Barnes’ late-game heroics have had plenty to do with the wins.

“You just relax,” he said. “It’s different when the score’s tied, because it’s just like, look, you’re just taking a last-second shot. You’re trying to get a clean look and go from there. But you just slow things down, you don’t wanna get rushed. You want to get to your spot, and then when you shoot it, just be relaxed.”

It appears the Mavericks now have two go-to guys. Add to that duo quality veterans Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews – who have each hit plenty of big shots this season, too – and suddenly the Mavs look like they can be a crunch-time juggernaut just like they were last season, when their 16.0 net rating in clutch situations was second-best in the NBA, behind only Barnes’ 73-win Golden State Warriors.

Every good team has a hierarchy, however, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out for the Mavericks. Maybe Barnes and Nowitzki can even trade off late in games, depending on who’s guarding who. Not many teams have guys who can guard the German, and not many have had guys who can guard Barnes, but there might not be one with players who can guard both. As for the future, watching how reliable Barnes has become in the fourth quarter has to make this organization feel good about its direction and chances for success in the post-Dirk era, which hopefully is still two years (or more) away. But by then, Barnes will still only be just 26 years old.

No matter how accurate a Nowitzki impression Barnes does, however, the fifth-year pro is aware that he’s only piggy-backing off the foundation the German established many years ago, when Barnes was still a middle-schooler.

“He reminds me that he wrote the playbook,” Barnes joked. “He lets me know.”

Imitation is the finest form of flattery. And, in this case, it’s a pretty darn good way to win games, too.

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