9:17 left in the game. The Warriors are looking to ice their first playoff win in the Joe Lacob era. Denver is heading into Game 2 with a 38-3 home record in the regular season and a Game 1 victory that saw Andre Miller peruse through the lane for a last second victory. Harrison Barnes catches the pass from Klay Thompson beyond the three-point arc at the right elbow, drives past Anthony Randolph and slams a filthy reverse dunk over the former Warrior to give the Warriors a 105-93 victory.
Barnes finished the game with 24 points on 9/14 shooting, six rebounds, zero turnovers and a team high +17 in 34 minutes. It was his rookie season and his second career playoff game in the toughest arena (statistically) to play in the league. He was unfazed, and it was beautiful to watch. The Warriors may or may not have been losing games intentionally to move up in the draft, and Harrison Barnes was there for the taking at #7. Surely the team couldn’t have expected such production from their first-year forward so soon.
This was deemed the official arrival of Harrison Barnes. Despite the numerous clichés, the playoffs are really where legacies are made. After a pedestrian (though encouraging) regular season that saw the former Tar Heel start all but one game, The Black Falcon made his presence known in Game 2, with his slam over Randolph being the shining moment.
Barnes went on to average 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds on 44% shooting in over 38 minutes during the playoffs. The production matched the hype. The former top high school prospect finally made it to the NBA and delivered on all the pre-college and pre-draft advertising. He lived up to his name. Management saw it. His coach witnessed it. His teammates were excited about it. Fans were eager to see what their newfound prize had in store for them.
Fast forward to this season.
Barnes is coming off a hugely disappointing regular season campaign. He was subjected to the bench after the team acquired a savvy, stout veteran in the offseason (Andre Iguodala). While his output was comparable to his rookie season (with the exception of his FG% which dropped from 44% to 39%), the look and feel to his game was vastly different. He was hesitating, constantly forcing shots and never looked comfortable in his new role on the team. Some called it a sophomore slump; others called it a harsh realization.
The debate of Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes quickly changed its tune, instead switching to Draymond Green and eventually every contributing bench player not currently on the Warriors. He looked lost on the floor, and the team was better off with him on the bench. Barnes stayed consistent in both play and demeanor. Not getting down on himself, he continued to work hard and demonstrate his professionalism despite his struggling offensive game, lack of defensive awareness and lowly production.
After Andrew Bogut went down with a fractured rib, the Warriors best game plan heading into their series with the Los Angeles Clippers was to initiate their small-ball lineup to ratchet up the pace and increase transition baskets. This 4-out system was what helped them beat the Denver Nuggets in the first round last season. It was also the system that contributed to Barnes’ impressive stretch of games, putting his athleticism against larger, slower players, allowing him to slash inside and get open looks with ease.
1:49 left in the game. The Warriors are looking to steal Game 1 on the road, short-handed against their heated Southern California rival. The Clippers were 7 point favorites heading into Game 1 and the widespread pick to win the series. Seven-time All-Star Chris Paul — having scored 10 points already in the quarter — grabbed a rebound, initiated a fast break and drove right, looking to give his team a 105-102 lead with less than two minutes to go.
But, before Paul could finish his layup attempt (or the officials could make another suspect call), Harrison Barnes made an incredible block that (unsurprisingly) left Paul on the ground begging for the call. Barnes then trailed Klay Thompson on the fast break quickly following the block. Thompson drifted to the middle and found the trailing Barnes, and in almost the exact spot where he took off against Anthony Randolph just one year ago, hit the open three to give the Warriors a 105-103 lead.
There was a beautiful synergy to this sequence that hasn’t been seen from Barnes all season. It proved to be the most crucial sequence of the game and the most important in Barnes’ young career. With something, anything, from the bench needed in what was one of the ugliest playoff games in recent memory, Barnes led all bench scorers with 14 points, 8 rebounds and the most critical defensive play of the game.
Andre Iguodala staying in foul trouble contributed to some additional minutes for Barnes, and he took advantage. He missed 7 of his 11 shots. Many of those shots were open, but as long as the Clippers continue to hound Stephen Curry, those shots will be there for Barnes. The potential for additional productive games exists, and he will get plenty of opportunities to improve and put his frustrating regular season behind him.
He doesn’t have to be out of this world. He doesn’t have to suddenly transform into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. He doesn’t even have to outproduce his fellow bench squad. What he must do is find a niche. On Saturday, he helped his team on the glass and with 14 points. Aside from the aforementioned sequence, Barnes made his presence known on both ends. And for the Warriors to take Game 1, he needed to.
With that said, the series isn’t over. Barnes is far from a finish product. He’s been coming up short of expectations on every turn and providing critics every reason to wonder why he continued to receive playing time. Game 1 proved that Barnes isn’t done yet, and even through the most critical and pressing of times, can still be the force the team envisioned just 22 months ago.
The Black Falcon soared in a different way on Saturday. It wasn’t a posterization over a certain Montenegrin or reverse slam over a former Warrior, but a key block on the best point guard in the league that led to the biggest three of his career to date. The Falcon will need to stay aerial for his team to advance this postseason. But given his impressive performance in Game 1, he’s ready to do just that. Again.