The Clippers had their share of doubters during the regular season, and rightly so. They never managed to cobble up together a decent bench and their defense was suspect. Not only that, but neither of their starting bigs had three-point range and teams were ignoring their small forward to pack the paint even more. Matt Barnes was seen as a legitimate liability who could cost the Clippers a series. Instead, he was instrumental in Los Angeles winning the battle against the Spurs and stealing Game 1 in Houston.
Barnes’s strength is supposed to be his defense, so it’s not surprising that the Clippers are five points better than their average on that end in the playoffs when he’s on the court. Yet Kawhi Leonard largely torched him in the first round, scoring 20 points per game on 47 percent shooting with Barnes as his primary defender, and Trevor Ariza scored 17 points on over 50 percent shooting in Game 1.
While the on/off numbers might exaggerate his defensive prowess, what makes Barnes a plus defender is how disruptive he has been. He makes up for occasionally getting scored on with steals, which is huge for the Clippers’ transition offense. With Barnes on the court, the Clippers score over five more points per 48 minutes on the break. They outscored the Spurs by 46 in total before the defense was set during those seven games, and in Game 1 against the Rockets, his four steals helped Los Angeles’ transition game keep up against a Rockets team that made a killing on the break.
Solid defense and transition scoring were expected of Barnes, to a degree. What that game in Houston also illustrated perfectly was his surprising effectiveness on offense in the half court during the postseason. Since the Rockets wanted to hide James Harden on him, Barnes knew he had to move since he was being checked by a player infamous for his off-ball lapses. That’s how he burned him on straight cuts…
…or by going from corner to corner for uncontested jumpers:
Very often during the season, Barnes would stand around, but not in the playoffs. Against the Spurs he didn’t have that kind of freedom as a cutter, but he made a killing on the offensive glass, saving over one and a half possessions per game on the boards in just 28 minutes per game.
While guys like Tony Allen can make an impact as cutters, if they can’t hit outside shots sooner or later, they’ll end up hurting their team’s offense. If Barnes’s man is free to roam and only has to worry about the occasional offensive rebound while hindering the Clippers’ first or second option, that’s a trade-off almost any coach would make. Fortunately for Los Angeles, Barnes’s three-point shooting percentage hasn’t dipped in the postseason, hovering around an acceptable 37 percent. What’s more, he’s making them when they count, like when the Clippers trailed the Spurs by three in the closing minutes of Game 7…
…or when they needed to create separation in Game 1 against the Rockets:
The Clippers have desperately needed Barnes’s solid play, because Jamal Crawford has been maddeningly inconsistent and both the Spurs and the Rockets have made it a point to stop J.J. Redick. It’s not surprising that opponents are daring Barnes to beat them; what’s surprising is he’s finding ways to do so without overstepping his role. He’s not taking more shots or going for highlight plays. He’s just taking what the defense gives him.
It’s obvious that the Clippers will go as far as Blake Griffin and Chris Paul take them, but every contender needs unlikely contributors to step up in the playoffs. Barnes is doing just that, and because he was perceived as the weak link, he’s catching teams that game planned for him being a hindrance to the starting unit off guard. His 20 points on 13 shots against Houston is the best proof of that.
It’s hard to predict whether Barnes will be able to keep up his good play. Even a small dip in three-point shooting efficiency would reward teams that ignore him handsomely, and the hustle plays he makes on the boards and off cuts can be taken away by a more attentive defense. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him go from unsung hero to anonymous role player soon, and that’s OK. He has already helped the Clippers more than most thought he would. Anything else is gravy.