In the waning minutes of Thursday’s 97-87 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle implemented a play his team hadn’t run all season.
Six times in a row Carlisle made the call. Each time, the ball found Harrison Barnes along the left elbow of the court. Barnes went 3-for-4 from the field and registered an assist during the stretch, trimming his team’s deficit to three points with 1 minute, 58 seconds left.
The comeback charge Barnes led ultimately fell short. For the first four seasons of his NBA career, though, the 6-foot-8 small forward rarely played a part on the offensive end in such situations, if at all.
Playing alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Barnes was typically the fourth or fifth option for the Golden State Warriors. After signing a four-year, $94 million contract with the Mavericks during the offseason, injuries have thrust Barnes into a go-to role.
“You just have to go and be aggressive,” said Barnes, who scored a team-best 17 points on 8-of-20 shooting against Charlotte. “That’s just the mentality coach has been trying to get me to be in this entire season.
“When he (Carlisle) draws up that play, it can’t be that I’m indecisive or thinking, ‘What play should I do?’ It’s just got be, ‘Make a read, and make or miss you live with the result.’ ”
Embracing this philosophy, however, hasn’t always been easy.
Tabbed a preseason All-American before he even took the floor for his first collegiate game, Barnes, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2010, arrived at North Carolina destined for stardom.
After shooting 33.7 percent from the field and 27.3 percent on 3-pointers through his first nine games, the lofty expectations turned burdensome as Barnes allowed himself to listen to the chatter surrounding his slow start.
“Thinking back to those times, it was like the world was falling down and I just couldn’t get anything to go on the basketball court,” said Barnes, 24, six years removed from his freshman season. “Now I look back on it like, it was just a couple of weeks or a couple of months.”
He ultimately led the Tar Heels with 15.6 points per game and was named ACC Rookie of the Year. Despite the work ethic and flashes of brilliance Barnes demonstrated across two years in Chapel Hill, some fans and media members perceived him as a disappointment after not helping UNC advance past the Elite Eight.
The Warriors thought otherwise. Golden State selected Barnes with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, and he played a critical complementary role in the team’s ascension.
After the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals this past June, during which Barnes went 5-for-32 from the field and 3-for-15 on 3-pointers across the final three games, team brass informed him it would be pursuing other options in free agency.
Dallas signed Barnes to a max contract in July. He then traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, where he mostly watched from the bench as Kevin Durant, his replacement in Golden State, led Team USA to a gold medal.
He took each hardship in stride. They motivated him.
“Although I didn’t play well in the Finals,” Barnes said, “I didn’t want that to be a thing that haunted me for years and years and years to where all of a sudden I can’t make shots, I’m overthinking and I’m all over the place.
“I just kind of wanted to put that behind me and say, ‘Look, this is a new chapter. I’m going to go out there and play aggressively and just play to win.’ ”
After losing to the Hornets, the Mavericks fell to a league-worst 3-15, but Barnes’ development has been a bright spot so far.
With players such as Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, Deron Williams and Devin Harris hobbled by injuries, Barnes leads Dallas with 20.3 points per game, almost double his career average, on 46 percent shooting.
“Harrison is taking on a lot of responsibility during this period,” Carlisle said. “… He keeps learning about new situations, new playmaking situations, and he’s getting better. He’s taking quantum leaps, so we’ve got to keep him going that way.”
If they do, Barnes could find the ball in his hands late in games even more frequently.