Posted May 14 2011 8:24PM - Updated May 15 2011 10:09PM
DALLAS -- There are a number of things about J.J. Barea you need never worry about.
His toughness should be first on the list.
After being knocked to the ground from mid-air by a wicked Andrew Bynum elbow to the ribs, Barea was back on his feet a couple of minutes later, calmly knocking down free throws that helped sweep Bynum and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals.
His determination comes in a close second.
How else to explain the diminutive Barea (listed generously at 6-feet tall but barely a whisker over 5-foot-10) playing in his fifth NBA season while others with seemingly more favorable measurables drawing paychecks elsewhere? He signed with the Mavericks as a free agent in August of 2006 and has been a fan favorite and franchise staple ever since.
Barea's ability to seize an opportunity, however, might very well be his best trait.
How many NBA players, or men anywhere, can say they are dating a former Miss Universe? And Barea didn't get some red-carpet, VIP introduction. He simply sent the stunning Zuleyka Rivera, Miss Universe 2006 and now a telenovela actress, a text message and weeks later Puerto Rico's version of the Royal couple was born.
Barea isn't interested in the publicity that comes along with getting raves on the celebrity circuit, though. His focus is basketball. And more importantly the eight more wins the Mavericks need to win the franchise's first NBA championship.
But he'll be the first to tell you that he's living the charmed life right now, on and off the court, a life that could get a whole lot sweeter the longer the Mavericks play in the postseason.
"The combination of playing well, especially in the playoffs, and the fact that we're in the conference finals is as good as it gets for me. No question," Barea said. "You only get so many chances to chase this in your career, maybe once in your life if you are lucky. You never know what's going to happen so you have to do everything you can to be in that moment."
Barea is far from a novelty act. Sure, he could pass for a member of the training staff much easier than he could the backup point guard when you see him in street clothes. Looks are deceiving. Barea has been the Mavericks' backup point guard the past three seasons and other than Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, no player on the Mavericks' roster has been around longer to experience the postseason lows that came after that meltdown in the 2006 NBA Finals, when the Mavericks lost to the Miami Heat after being minutes away from a commanding 3-0 series lead.
"I've seen it all," Barea said, "the highs and the lows, the coaching changes and all the players that have come and gone since then. That's why you enjoy it now, because you know how fragile it all can be."
Barea has never played better than he did during that sweep of the Lakers. He averaged 11.5 points, 5.5 assists and shot an even 50 percent from the floor in the series. As much as Nowitzki, Terry and Peja Stojakovic did the Lakers in with their clutch shooting, it was Barea that they had no answer for. He dismantled the Lakers with dribble penetration, floating shots over 7-footers like Bynum and Gasol on the regular while also scrambling the Lakers' perimeter defense repeatedly with deft moves to the basket and passes to wide-open shooters.
His work in that series was a continuation of the work he did during the regular season for the Mavericks. Barea averaged career highs in points (9.5), assists (3.9) and minutes (20.5) in 81 games, including two starts.
"J.J. has been playing great here for three years," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "For us it's not about getting the notoriety now, Barea has been a really resourceful guy with his career. You're talking about a guy that was undrafted, he's undersized, at least perceived to be undersized. But he's found a way to make an impact on our team and an impact in this league. And resourcefulness is one of the things that really go a long way this time of year because there are a lot of factors that are equal when you play seven-game series."
Barea's teammates and coaches think he's only scratched the surface of what he can become as a player. The flashes of individual brilliance he's shown playing behind Jason Kidd the past three seasons are just the beginning.
While some people might resist labeling him a starting-caliber point guard because of his size, one former pint-sized point guard with experience doing some of the same things, is convinced that Barea's game can get much better than what we've seen already.
Mavericks assistant coach Darrell Armstrong played 16 seasons in the league with the Magic, Hornets, Raptors, Mavericks, Pacers and Nets at just 6-feet and 170 pounds. He said Barea has a luxury most young point guards don't have in that he gets to play alongside one of the game's all-time great technicians as he navigates his way through the early stages of his career.
"The best thing J.J. has going for him right now is that he gets to play with Jason Kidd and learn from him, a guy that has done it for years," Armstrong said. "The best thing is he has some good guards around him, in both [Kidd and] Jet. They're always in his ear. And I try and bring a little veteran leadership for him at the position as well.
"I was in a similar position as he's in as a player, being smaller. Either I was going to learn how to play post defense and learn how to fight, or I was going to get my tail whipped every night. I was going against the [Joe] Dumars and young Ray Allens and the Latrell Sprewells back then. J.J. has to deal with a lot of the bigger [point guards and shooting guards] of this era. He's done a great job digging in and learning how to battle and that's what separates the guys that play for a long time in this league and the guys that are here one day and gone the next. J.J. is relentless, and that carries you a long way.
"If I was Bynum, I'd have been upset, too. You got this little guy turning the corner and he keeps coming at you and keeps coming at you. After a while it gets frustrating, when every time you look up he's in your lane and getting to the basket, scoring and making plays for other guys. If he sees an opening, he'll take advantage it."
Barea has taken advantage of every opportunity presented to him since he clawed his way into the league after a stellar college career at Northeastern.
But the ultimate prize, for Barea and his Mavericks teammates, remains that elusive NBA title. The idea of Barea showing up on his home soil as an NBA champion is something he's already visualized.
"It would be so crazy in Puerto Rico," Barea said. "Right now it's crazy because we swept the Lakers and that's huge down there. But if was to take a ring back home, I don't know ... I wouldn't be able to move out of the airport. It would be awesome for so many reasons. And that's what we're fighting for."
If J.J. Barea is fighting for you or your team, you know you're in pretty good hands.
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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