How J.J. Barea Saved the Mavericks’ Playoff Chances

An in-depth look at the X's and O'x of how J.J. Barea sparked the Mavs to a much-needed winning streak and pole position for a final playoff spot in the West.

After Barea had to sit out in Sunday’s loss to the Clippers, The Mavs remain in pole position for one of the last two playoff spots in the West, though their hopes of jumping up to the six or five seed have been dashed at least a little bit. They owe this position to one of the best weeks of his career by Puerto Rico’s NBA player, the backup point guard on his second stint with Dallas, J.J. Barea. With the Mavs recent injury woes, Barea was thrust into the spotlight of heavy minutes, and he took advantage better than anyone had thought likely. How did he do it? Barea created opportunity after opportunity for the Mavericks in five key ways that go beyond the simple answer that he’s great running the pick and roll—which he is. He’s one of the best at threading passes right down into the lane after waiting just long enough for the defense to believe they’ve prevented a pass to the roll man and they’ve started reacting to other threats (although this is also where the majority of his turnovers come). The areas we’ll look at today, though, are: creating and attacking mismatches, using Dirk’s gravity on the pick and roll, the hesitation dribble, great mid-range production, and skip passes for open three pointers.


Dirk’s Gravity in the Pick and Roll

If you recall from the 2011 Finals against the Heat, the big adjustment the Mavericks made was starting Barea. When asked about it, the team’s response was that Barea is most effective running around Dirk screens and using the space the big German creates, so they wanted as much minutes overlap between them as possible. Well, nearly five years later that chemistry is still humming. This first play is a simple example of how teams are afraid of Dirk’s ability to shoot after the screen. Tobias Harris sticks to Nowitzki like his life depends on it and allows Barea an easy pull-up jumper from the elbow.

You can see the same effect here, as Payne is so concerned with keeping close to Dirk that he doesn’t hedge far enough to stop Barea and then compounds the issue by failing to allow Rubio enough space to slide by and catch back up with his man. One second later, Barea pulls up for the wide open three pointer.

In this next clip, Carmelo and Vujacic are both more concerned with a pass back to Dirk for an easy bucket than they are with Barea, who rockets around the big man, takes the handoff, and goes full speed into the paint. Note how Anthony is ready to jab at Barea and then stick to Dirk, but Vujacic decides he’s pinned and needs to prevent the pocket pass back to Nowitzki. Both guys end up leaving Barea free to knife into the lane.

Finally, we see what happens when teams don’t respect Dirk’s shooting ability enough, and Barea’s chemistry with the big man shines. In this play against the Timberwolves, where Barea spent his short stint between contracts with the Mavericks, he combines Dirk’s ability with his own potent hesitation dribble, keeping Bjelica in place while drawing Tyus Jones to him and freeing the NBA’s sixth all-time leading scorer for an easy three at the top of the key.


Barea’s Biggest Weapon: The Hesitation Dribble

Barea’s hesitation dribble is Nash-esque, and something he likely learned from Avery Johnson when he first began with the Mavericks. More than just hesitating, Barea is a master of changing pace, like Chris Johnson in his first few years with the Titans. He waits, leans, goes, stops, slows, and accelerates at just the right times to keep defenders off balance. You’ll notice it in many of his clips, but two in particular stand out. In the first clip, he fools Kevin Garnett, one of the best big man defenders of all-time, with two decades of experience. Barea’s hesitation is enough to convince Garnett that he’s prevented the dribble penetration and can run back to Nowitzki to prevent a three pointer. As Garnett starts to lean away, Barea takes off again and gets to the rim to draw a foul.

In this second clip, Barea gets Darrell Arthur. Watch closely at Arthur’s feet when Barea stops and then goes. As J.J. changes his speed, he doesn’t get Arthur to run back, but he freezes the big man’s feet so they stop moving just long enough for Barea to drive past before Arthur is back on the balls of his feet and able to slide again.

Barea Attacking Mismatches

After the unwordly three-point shooting, this is Steph Curry’s greatest value skill as well. When a big man is switched onto the MVP, Steph tends to destroy him to the tune of 3 points or a drive right into the paint leading to an assist or a layup. If Curry is the 1%, then Barea is the middle-class version of that skill set. Watch these two clips of Barea attacking Carmelo Anthony on back to back possessions to end the second quarter when the Knicks decided to go big and put their only two guards on Matthews and Harris. In the first clip, Barea gets Anthony to back off just enough to knock down an easy three pointer. In the second, Anthony tries to pressure the inbound but Barea escapes, draws out the clock, drives to force help, and hits Nowitzki for three when his man crashes down on Barea.

Earlier in that same game, we saw Barea get the switch with Kevin Seraphin. Without enough time to get the ball to Dirk and let him work on a smaller defender, Barea got Seraphin off balance and hit the open long jumper.


Producing in the Mid-Range

No hot streak would be complete without some ridiculous mid-range production, and Barea’s had that as well, particularly in the first half against the Pistons. First, look at this drive on the switch against Anthony Tolliver. Tolliver sticks with him, doesn’t fall for any fakes, and still gets victimized by a step back, drifting, fadeaway two from just outside the paint in no-man’s land.

You can see a small collection of some of these shots below. These are the shots that separate a good game from a great game. Every NBA team is going to score 80 points and get 40 rebounds a game. What separates teams on any given night is how many more shots come like this instead of as open looks, and how many of these shots actually fall instead of ending up as defensive rebounds.



Barea’s Vision: Skip Passes Lead to Open Threes

Finally, Barea’s vision as his dervish-like drives cause defensive rotations has opened up a number of open threes for teammates, especially Justin Anderson in the corner. In these first two clips, you can see how Zaza’s rolls or cuts occupy the weakside defender long enough for Barea to fling a pass across the court for the open three. He waits long enough for the help defender to “tag” Zaza, but not long enough for him to scramble back and close out the shooter. In the second clip you can see Zaza recognize his position and help out by screening Harris’s defender.


In these last two clips, we can see how Barea’s dribble penetration can cause the same effect as the roll to the basket by a big man. In the first, Barea flies past a lazy Harden in semi-transition, draws up the defense at the rim, and fires the ball back out for three.

In this final clip, we see how Barea can get into the paint, forcing Zaza’s defender over to help. That causes the weakside rotation to crash down on Zaza and prevent the easy dish for a layup. Barea anticipates the standard NBA rotation from the defense and fires the ball out to the corner instead. Result: three points for Dallas.

Now with Barea injured the Mavs may be getting Deron Williams back at the perfect time. With the Sunday loss to the Clippers, Dallas has to get a win tonight against Utah or hope for a Rockets loss. A Utah win and Rockets loss will eliminate Houston and set Dallas and Utah as the last two teams in, whereas a Dallas win and a Houston win would leave the Jazz and Rockets fighting down to the wire for the final playoff spot in the West.

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