DALLAS — What does it take to be a go-to scorer? Harrison Barnes is learning the answer to that question on the fly.
Leading the Dallas Mavericks to a comeback 112-105 overtime win over the Utah Jazz after trailing by as many as 21, the 24-year-old Barnes seemingly put his team on his back down the stretch Thursday night while scoring eight of his 31 points during the extra period. It was just the latest installment of Barnes’ growth into his go-to role with the Mavericks (21-32) this season, assuming the added responsibility in clutch moments from 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki. But despite showing once again that he’s ready to take the keys from Nowitzki with the game on the line after steering the Mavs to a win, Barnes admits that becoming the team’s focal point has still been a learning process.
“You know, it’s a work in progress. You know, each situation is different. That’s something you’ve got to work through, but I’m thankful that coach [Rick Carlisle] trust me in that situation late in the game, and my teammates trust me and have confidence in me. I’ve just got to produce,” Barnes candidly said after leading the Mavericks to their largest comeback win since trailing by as many as 23 in Denver on Feb. 26, 2016.
“You have to be aggressive,” he added. “There’s some times when you can trust the flow and trust the team. But as the game starts winding down and you start getting down the stretch, you have to realize if you haven’t touched the ball in eight minutes, you can’t just be expected to just grab it and just be able to make a game-winning shot. You have to get in a rhythm and get yourself into the game. It’s not necessarily being selfish. It’s just more so being aggressive.”
On the season, Barnes has certainly been aggressive while averaging a team-best 20.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game, clocking a career-high 35.9 minutes a game during his fifth season. He’s also connecting on 47.8 percent from the field and 34.2 percent beyond the three-point arc, starting all 53 games for the Mavericks this season.
Barnes has a team-high 26.5 percent usage rate and 104.1 offensive rating as well, tying with the likes of two-time MVP Stephen Curry while averaging 4.6 points in the fourth quarter this season on 47.6 percent shooting. That said, the 6-foot-8 versatile forward has shown that he wants the ball in his hands down the stretch, earning the trust of his head coach and teammates in clutch situations. And with Barnes’ hard work on the practice court paying off, Carlisle says the Mavs’ prized offseason signing is just beginning to tap into his full potential.
“He’s been great. There’s no other word to describe it,” Carlisle said while praising Barnes’ play this season. “He’s totally committed to being a great player. His work ethic is second to none of any player I’ve ever been around as a player or a coach. He is really a relentless worker, he loves the game, and he came here because he relished the opportunity to take on a bigger responsibility. There are some painful parts of it. Early in the year it was a bit of a struggle, but he pushed through. We’ve put the ball in his hands a lot, and he’s delivered time after time.”
Seeing the Jazz’s primary shot blocker, center Rudy Gobert, exit the game after fouling out with 21.2 seconds left in regulation Thursday night, Barnes then began to relentlessly attack the rim. Barnes also took advantage of having a larger defender on him late in Thursday’s game, attacking big man Derrick Favors repeatedly to help the Mavericks separate on the scoreboard.
Barnes’ driving and-one score capped a 7-0 Dallas start to overtime as the Mavs attempted to pull away. He then answered Gordon Hayward’s timely three-pointer with another driving score to put the Mavericks up 109-103 with 1:53 remaining in the extra period. The versatile forward delivered again with an athletic finish in traffic to put the Mavs ahead 111-105 with 34.2 seconds left. And after seeing Barnes split a pair of free throws with 17.3 seconds left to cap the scoring, Nowitzki praised the emergence of his young teammate this season.
“Gobert was out, and that was big with his length not being there. And [Barnes] really took his time,” Nowitzki said. “He wasn’t rushing, and he looked like he wasn’t in a rush. He likes to go off the dribble, so he got a good rhythm and really got to the basket a couple of times. When we were down four, we ran a quick drive for him. He was able to go and cut it to two with a dunk, so he had some big drives for us and some big layups.
“I mean, he’s come a long way from the games in preseason and at the beginning of the season,” Nowitzki added. “He’s playing really well, and I think he’s confident in that role now. He grew. I was out for a long time, and the ball kept coming to him. He made some unbelievable plays, kept us in games, and he won us some games over the last two months. You know, he’s a hard worker, and he wants to be in that position. It’s been fun to watch his progress.”