Mike Brown makes Matt Barnes' starting small forward spot permanent
In a season full of adjusted practice schedules and roster shuffling, the Lakers provided one element of clarity during their 90-82 victory Sunday over the Memphis Grizzlies.
After seeing Matt Barnes play in what he called a "whale of a game" with 15 points on five-of-nine shooting, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 35 minutes, Lakers Coach Mike Brown granted Barnes the permanent starting spot at small forward.
"He's my small forward for the foreseeable future," Brown said. "He earned it, has held onto it and has played the right way for us at that position."
Against Memphis, that involved what Kobe Bryant described as Barnes "playing to his strengths." Barnes switched defensive assignments between Rudy Gay and Mike Conley and limited their opportunities when guarding him. He often penetrated the paint off backdoor cuts and screens, creating open layups or three-point attempts. And he helped the Lakers provide sharper ball movement, particularly when Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum met double teams.
Barnes epitomized his effort on a play after the Grizzlies cut the Lakers' lead to 78-74 with 9:18 remaining. Barnes blocked O.J. Mayo's shot, sprinted down full court, received Derek Fisher's pass and then made a layup to extend the Lakers' lead.
Barnes hardly felt overly excited about the definitive starting spot, however, when reporters relayed to him the news.
"There's no comfort," Barnes said. "I thought I was starting at the beginning of the year. There's no comfort here. I'm going to continue to go out and play hard and do anything I can to help the team win."
Barnes held that role ever since signing with the Lakers last season, but contended the consistency evaporated as soon as he returned from surgery on a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. His surgery and rehab kept him sidelined for 26 consecutive games. Once considered one of the Lakers' most reliable bench players because of his hustle, intensity and effective cutting, Barnes soon appeared tentative on the court. His 6.7 points per game on 47% shooting and 4.3 rebounds in 19.2 minutes during the regular season dipped to 3.6 points per game on 37% shooting and 2.8 rebounds in 13.1 minutes in the postseason.
This season, Barnes remained in a competition with second-year player Devin Ebanks and lost the spot because Ebanks' sharp shooting and athleticism during preseason play proved superior to Barnes' poor shooting and over-the-top aggression on defense. Because Brown remained intent on having Metta World Peace to keep as the first small forward off the bench, the demotion for Barnes limited his minutes so much that he didn't play in two of the first three games.
His sharp defense on New York's Carmelo Anthony last week prompted Brown to give Barnes the starting nod moving forward. But inconsistent performances against Denver and Portland kept the spot in flux. Barnes posted double-digit efforts for the last two games, however, marking only the second time he's done so with the Lakers on consecutive contests.
Brown remained so impressed with Barnes' play that World Peace didn't play at all in the second half in the Lakers' 97-90 win Friday over Golden State. World Peace only played 12 minutes, including a two-minute stint in the second half against Memphis, for the same reason. But Brown remained hesitant to say how Barnes play will determine World Peace's minutes moving forward.
"I'm not going to say yes; I'm not going to say no," Brown said. "But [Barnes] did deserve the minutes he played tonight."
For now, Barnes simply expects to build off his recent performances.
"I'm always confident but the important thing is the coach having confidence in you," Barnes said. "It goes a long way when you know coach backs you. I feel like Mike is starting to back me and it shows in my play."
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