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Harrison Barnes showed he can score like a No. 1, now says he must be playmaker

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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban looks like Nostradamus on Harrison Barnes.

“I think he can do a lot more than he’s been asked to do, and that’s what we expect to see,” Cuban said after signing Barnes to a four-year, $94 million max contract last summer. That was a deal signed on the heels of a dismal playoff performance from Barnes where his shot was off, and he overcompensated by trying to do more than his catch-and-shoot role — then struggled mightily with that. He got benched.

The doubters were plentiful back in July. “You saw him in the playoffs and then you gave him $94 million? He’s the face of the franchise after Dirk Nowitzki?”

Barnes has silenced them all — 20.4 points per game, a solid 53.3 true shooting percentage, he has stayed efficient while his usage rate has jumped to a career high 26.4, he’s had to create more in isolation than ever before, and he’s doing it well.

But he knows playmaking is the next step.

“This has been the largest role I think I’ve ever had,” Barnes told NBC Sports during an interview, which you can hear all of on the most recent PBT Podcast. “I think being able to score consistently, that’s the big first step. Now it’s playmaking, knowing when to get other guys involved, knowing when to score, making that decision.”

The playmaking process is more mental — he can go to the gym in the summer and work on his handles, but playmaking is something learned in game.

“Now that I’ve shown I can score consistently, teams are going to send more help, there’s going to be different schemes and situations that I’m going to see,” said Barnes, who has signed on as an endorser of McDavid Hex and Shock Doctor to help him deal with the physicality he deals with now. “So making sure that I can deliver the ball to the open guy, get my teammates shots, just kind of knowing when to pass…

“You just have to learn it in game. I mean I watch a lot of film, trying to learn that way as much as I can, but it just has to be a feel thing. You just have to be playing, you have to be in games, you have to see it, do it multiple times. And that’s where the organization has been great with me, just having the patience, my teammates have been patient, just understanding that I am getting better.”

A lot of things have been a mental shift in Dallas for Barnes, he admitted. In Steve Kerr’s offense he was an off-the-ball threat, a corner three guy who could also kill teams in transition and defend well. Rick Carlisle is asking a lot of different things from Barnes — things some around the league were not convinced he could do. That starts in isolation — 29.4 percent of Barnes’ plays come that way, according to Synergy Sports, and with passes the Mavs score at a very good .957 points per possession pace on those sets. When Barnes shoots in isolation he hits 50.9 percent.

“One of the biggest adjustments I had to make in my mentality, being a go-to guy, was free throws. There’s so much more on you too, one, get your team into the bonus quicker, or two, to get to the free throw line. And the only way to do that is to get to the paint. It’s hard to get to the free throw line shooting threes.

“The game has become so much more physical, so much more aggressive, That’s why I like wearing the McDavid Hex protective arm and leg sleeves – I know I am protected. And I prefer Shock Doctor’s Basketball mouthguard because it fits like a custom mouthguard, so I don’t even know it’s there,” said Barnes of his new business partner. “Just because any type of injury, any type of bumps and bruises, that can have an opportunity to take you out. And one of the biggest things you lose when you get out is your rhythm, and that’s one of the hardest things to get back.”

With that massive contract, Barnes becomes the guy in line to take over as the face of the Mavericks’ franchise once Dirk Nowitzki steps away (which could be at the end of this season). Nowitzki has only been on the court for three games this campaign, but Barnes said one of the reasons he signed in Dallas was to learn from the future Hall of Famer, and the big German has not disappointed as a mentor.

“He’s on every single day. He’s loud, he’s vocal, off the court one of the funniest teammates I’ve ever been around,” Barnes said. “The biggest thing he’s helped me with is just kind of where to get my shots, how to get into a flow, how to be aggressive. A lot of my plays are plays he’s been in for years. He knows the system better than anybody, he knows how to get his shot off better than anybody, so he’s been helping along through this process and he’s been a great mentor.”

The change for Barnes this year has also been cultural — and we don’t mean moving from the Bay Area to Dallas (although that is different, too). Rather, it’s the change from Steve Kerr to Rick Carlisle.

“What they do that’s similar is they are both great basketball minds…” Barnes said. “What I’m experiencing now, it’s a system that’s far more regimented. It’s very black-and-white what’s going to happen, just in terms of how we play and what’s expected. Compared to Coach Kerr, he was just a lot more read and react, we just played off each other, there were not a whole lot of set calls, not a lot of set rules, we just all knew how to play and play off each other.”

The other big basketball adjustment has been losing — Barnes has never been on a team that lost half its games (the lowest winning percentage of any of his teams, including high school, was 57 percent). Dallas is 7-18. Maybe when Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut get healthy the Mavericks will win a few more games, but this is not a team bound for the playoffs.

“It’s tough. You have a lot of pride as a winner, you’ve won a championship and been to the playoffs and all that kind of stuff…” Barnes said. “The biggest thing I’m trying to do is encourage the young guys to keep developing, keep working. For those guys, they haven’t necessarily experienced all those things, you need to not get discouraged, you need to be hard on yourself, you need to be your own worst critic. I’m telling them we just need to continue to grind every single day, get better, and if we continue to do that we’ll start to win some games and see what happens.”

What happens could be interesting a few seasons down the line, as Barnes becomes the centerpiece of a team about to rebuild for a post-Nowitzki era.

Whatever it is, Barnes is ready to put in the work and be there.

Watch Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, other NBA stars sing Christmas carol to promote games

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The NBA has a quality lineup of Christmas Day games this year (shown on ESPN and ABC):

The morning starts off with the Celtics at Knicks, then a Finals rematch with Warriors at Cavaliers, followed by the Bulls at Spurs, Timberwolves at Thunder, and wrapping up the night is the battle of LA with the Clippers vs. Lakers.

What better way to promote it than having Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Draymond Green, Zach LaVine, Victor Oladipo, and D’Angelo Russell sing a new Christmas carol: “The Most Dunktastic Time of the Year?”

Well, there probably are better ways, but the video is damn funny.

And these bloopers may even be better.

Kevin Durant, why didn’t you meet with Knicks last summer? “Because I didn’t want to”

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Kevin Durant conducted his free agent meetings in the Hamptons last summer, and a number of teams got to come in and make their pitch: Oklahoma City, Boston, L.A. Clippers, San Antonio, Miami, and obviously Golden State.

The Knicks are not on that list. Despite all but having Phil Jackson grovel for a chance to make his pitch.

Why no Knicks? Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News asked and got this answer:

“Uh, because I didn’t want to….

“I didn’t want to lead anybody on,” Durant said. “I got a lot of friends in the league. I got calls throughout the summer. But I made the best decision I wanted to make, the best decision for me, I’m happy I’m here. All that stuff is in the past. Melo and I remain great friends. That’s what’s most important. We didn’t let that get in between the friendship.”

Durant was only going to meet with teams that had a chance to land him. Where the Knicks franchise is in their rebuilding efforts, and where Durant was in his career, were very different places. This is basically the same reason the Lakers didn’t get invited to the Hamptons, either.

Durant, obviously, chose to head to Golden State, where he is having his most efficient season ever on the best team in the NBA so far. You can see why he’s happy with his choice. And he doesn’t really care what everyone else thinks about it.

Three things we learned Thursday: We will miss you, Craig Sager

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It was a sad day around the NBA as we all feel we lost a friend. Here are the takeaways from the Thursday.

1) We will miss you Craig Sager. After a valiant nearly three-year battle with a rare form of leukemia, beloved and brightly dressed sideline reporter Craig Sager passed away Thursday at the age of 65.

Love and tributes poured in from around the NBA Thursday, from players on social media to the Bucks’ Sager Strong warmups pregame Thursday night.

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There are a lot of things worth watching, such as the HBO Real Sports interview with Sager. But my favorite was the TNT tribute. Well done gentlemen.

Rest in peace, Craig.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 30, shows us how scary a world it will be when his jumpers fall. Which player leads the NBA in points in the paint per game? DeMarcus Cousins? No. Anthony Davis? No. Hassan Whiteside? Try again.

It’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. Attacking the basket both in transition and in the half court, he has taken 54 percent of his shots this season in the restricted area and is hitting 69.7 of those (well above the league average. As for outside the paint… just look at his shot chart for the season.

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Then in the first quarter Thursday night, the Greek Freak 4-of-6 from the outside, including both attempts from three on his way to 12 points, and showed us flashes of what could be. And it should terrify the rest of the league.

Antetokounmpo went on to have 30 points and 14 rebounds, Jabari Parker added 28 points on 19 shots, and the young core of the Bucks led them past the Bulls 108-97 in a game that wasn’t that close, save for a late rally by Chicago. (The Bulls are having some issues, but that’s another post for another day.)

3) Golden State put on a passing clinic — 36 assists on their first 36 buckets. That’s not fair. It’s not that their just loaded with three of the top five shooters in the game, it’s that the Golden State Warriors are selfless and share the rock. Which makes them impossible to defend.

The Warriors had 36 assists on their first 36 buckets Thursday night — including all 26 in the first half — and finished the night with 41 in a route of the shorthanded Knicks, 103-90. The outcome of the game was about as big a surprise as a Donald Trump early-morning tweet storms, but it’s how the Warriors got there that was impressive.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker lead Bucks to 108-97 win over Bulls

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 30 points and Jabari Parker added 28 to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a 108-97 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.

Milwaukee led the entire game and held a 24-point advantage early in the fourth quarter but had to hold on to snap a three-game losing streak, its longest of the season.

Antetokounmpo has totaled 88 points and 35 rebounds in his last three games, and Parker has reached at least 27 points in four of his last five.

Chicago lost for the fifth time in seven games and dropped its third straight on the road despite 21 points from Jimmy Butler and 20 from Dwyane Wade. The Bulls also got 19 points from Taj Gibson in the opener of a home-and-home between the teams on back-to-back nights.

The Bucks went up 95-71 on a dunk by Antetokounmpo with 10:01 remaining. But then Chicago cut the deficit in half by scoring the next 12 points, with 10 of them coming from Wade. His two free throws trimmed the margin to 95-83 with 7:14 to go.

Milwaukee led by at least eight the rest of the way.

The Bucks’ biggest lead of the night was 27 on a dunk by Tony Snell that made it 58-31 with 3:40 left in the second quarter.

The advantage was 64-45 at halftime, as Antetokounmpo (20), Parker (17) and Mirza Teletovic (10) combined to outscore Chicago by two points.

Milwaukee shot 80 percent (8 for 10) from 3-point range while Chicago was 1 for 9 (11.1 percent) from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Bulls: Rajan Rondo returned to the starting lineup after missing Tuesday’s game against Minnesota because of a right ankle sprain. . Butler has 79 points in his last three games. . Chicago lost at Milwaukee for just the fifth time in the last 15 games.

Bucks: There was a moment of silence for the death of longtime TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager, and Milwaukee players wore Sager Strong T-shirts during pregame warmups that resembled the outfit he wore at the recent ESPYs. Even mascot Bango donned a funky blue sport coat and plaid pants in Sager’s honor. . Michael Beasley missed his first game of the season with a left foot sprain.