Right about now, the Oklahoma City Thunder can probably identify with Andrew Bynum.
Don’t get me wrong, Dirk Nowitzki was unquestionably the story in the Mavericks’ Game 1 Western Conference finals victory over the Thunder. While other national outlets were busy talking up the greatness of Derrick Rose during Dallas’ well-earned, eight-day layoff after the team swept the two-time defending champion Lakers out of these playoffs, Nowitzki reappeared with an historic performance: 48 points on just 15 shots, and an NBA postseason record 24 made free throws without a miss.
As great as Nowitzki was, however, the scoring spark provided off the Mavericks’ bench was just as important to the team’s getting it done in Game 1. And J.J. Barea’s play exemplified the distinct advantage that Dallas has in this series, and has had the entire postseason thus far.
Simply put, the Mavericks have too many weapons.
Behind 24 points from Jason Terry and another 21 from Barea, the Mavericks’ bench outscored their Thunder counterparts 53-22. While we’re used to Terry’s scoring barrage off the pine, Barea can be hit or miss. But boy did he hit in the previous series against the Lakers, and he was equally deadly in Tuesday night’s series opener against OKC.
In his first stint in the first half, Barea had a quick nine points in just over nine minutes. But the real damage came in the fourth quarter, when the diminutive reserve took the game over for a brief stretch, and helped his team build the lead to a point of no return.
When Barea checked in 30 seconds into the final period, Dallas held a nine-point lead. He then proceeded to score his team’s next 12 points, pushing the lead to as many as 16 during that run. Barea used his speed to blow by defenders to get into the lane as Dallas spread the floor with its shooters, and he was able to finish at the rim, sometimes in traffic. And just when the defenders started to sag off of him and dare him to shoot from outside after he got to the basket for three consecutive layups, he nailed a 25-foot three-pointer, just because.
The performance from Barea was a microcosm of what teams in the playoffs have been finding out, as Dallas plows through them one by one on its seemingly inevitable march to the Finals. The Mavs are loaded; if Nowitzki doesn’t get you (which is unlikely given the transcendent level at which he’s performed this postseason), then Terry, Barea, or Jason Kidd will.
Bynum’s dirty and ridiculous hit on Barea late in the Lakers’ Game 4, 36-point loss in Dallas — you know, the one that earned him a five-game suspension to start next season, the biggest the league has handed out for an on-court action since the Knicks-Nuggets fight back in 2006 — was completely uncalled for. It was a poor decision in terms of how he wanted to vent the frustration of his season coming to an unexpected end, in no small part thanks to the play of a 5’11” reserve who carved up the Lakers at will for the better part of the series.
Don’t expect any member of the Oklahoma City Thunder to mimic Bynum’s actions at any point in the conference finals, no matter the situation. But just because they can control themselves better than Bynum did doesn’t mean they won’t share those same feelings of frustration.