MINNEAPOLIS–It was nothing more than a faint smirk, an acknowledgment that this was bound to happen.
The crowd groaned and the PA announcer muttered, “Nowitzki” after the Mavericks forward sunk a three-pointer in the third quarter, narrowing the Timberwolves lead to seven. But J.J. Barea, perched on a stationary bike, merely pursed his lips and kept pedaling.
After all, if anyone knows what to expect from the Dallas Mavericks, it’s Barea.
Article continues below ...
Dirk Nowitzki had finally showed up to play, and no one was less surprised than Barea, a key player in the Mavericks’ championship run last season who signed with the Timberwolves in December. Sunday night’s 99-82 Timberwolves victory was the first time he’d faced his former team on the court.
“It was strange,” Barea said of the experience. “Strange but not hard. It was fun.”
And though it’s unlikely that the struggling Mavericks, who fell to 1-4 on the season, saw the fun in game, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle felt similarly odd about playing against his former player, whom he called the NBA’s most effective 5’10” shooting guard.
“He brought real grit and guts to the team,” Carlisle said before the game. “While I’m very happy for him that he got himself a great contract, its tough. Its tough seeing him leave, and it’s going to be even tougher playing against him.”
Nearly eight minutes into the game, Barea came off the bench and quickly scored his first points ever against the Mavericks, hitting a shot that gave the Timberwolves a 19-15 lead.
But the most meaningful first for Barea on Sunday was bigger than those two points. What mattered most was that he’d finally seen his first win as a member of the Timberwolves. It was the first time he could revel in a Mavericks loss, a strange reversal of emotions for the sixth-year guard.
“It was awesome,” Barea said. “I’m so proud of my team right now. They did such a good job. It feels so good to beat your old team.”
Barea, who scored eight points on the night, was forced to watch much of the game, including its end, from the bench or a bike on the sidelines. After pulling his hamstring on Dec. 27 against Milwaukee, Barea missed Friday’s game against the Heat and saw diminished minutes on Sunday. Unable to lead his team on the court for much of the night, Barea advised from the bench, and he was the first to remind his teammates not to get complacent.
“I told the guys, ‘It’s coming. You just have to keep fighting and answer back,'” Barea said of Dallas’s ability to come back from behind. “I think we answered back tonight.”
But the pride Barea felt after Sunday night’s win was tinged with an element of disappointment. Getting healthy to face the Mavericks had been his goal since he suffered the hamstring pull, but taking the court may have only prolonged Barea’s recovery period. Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said that it was clear in the third quarter that Barea had been pushed hard enough, and Barea knew that the injury was getting in the way of his game.
“My game is that I’ve got to be explosive,” Barea said. “I’ve got to be quick to be at my best. It’s not there yet.”
Barea is questionable again for Monday night’s game against San Antonio, and the frustration of injury remains for the guard. It’s been a jumble of emotions and questions for Barea in the past few days, the oddness of playing against the men with whom he spent years of his career mingled with questions of how hard to push himself. And though frustration may be the feeling that remains into the week, getting to play a part in Sunday night’s victory may have made that feeling a bit easier to stomach.