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Mavs' Barea punches in early as temp

DALLAS -- The timetable for keeping Josh Howard in a reserve role is undetermined. Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has no need to hurry.

J.J. Barea's success as a fill-in starter makes the patience possible. The concern for Howard's health makes it necessary.

The Mavericks pushed Howard too hard when he first returned from offseason ankle surgery, leading him to be shut down again after two-and-a-half games. Part of Carlisle's plan to avoid a repeat of that situation is to limit his playing time by bringing him off the bench.

"We know what he means to our team," Carlisle said after the Mavericks' 94-90 win Monday over the New Orleans Hornets. "For right now, we're going to stick with this, pending what I feel when I wake up. But I think the right thing to do is to inch his minutes up gradually."

Howard has long been the Mavs' primary early scoring threat, but they haven't missed his offensive punch at the beginning of games. That's because Barea has been filling it up in the first quarter.

In his four starts, which have all been Mavericks wins, Barea has averaged 9.5 points per first quarter. He had 13 in the first quarter against the Hornets -- one point shy of his previous season high for a game -- by exploiting a defense determined to stick with Dirk Nowitzki on pick-and-rolls.

Barea, who is generously listed as a 6-footer, understands that his stint as the starting shooting guard is a short-term arrangement. He's aware that Howard will take over that role at some point, but Barea is determined to make that decision difficult for Carlisle.

"He's giving me chances," said Barea, who finished with 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting. "I'm just trying to take advantage of them."

Howard, who tends to be moody, appears to be embracing his temporary new role. We can't say for sure, since he left the locker room without chatting with the media Monday.

"He's been more than willing to do whatever to help the team," said Carlisle, who also wants to be careful about blending Howard back into the mix as the Mavs search for a rhythm. "He's been through a lot the last year-and-a-half with his health. Him just being available to play is huge for us."

There's no question Howard has provided a boost off the bench, at least at home. He's consistently provided energy on the defensive end. He had 20 points in 26 minutes during a win over the Phoenix Suns in his return from ankle rehab. Against the Hornets, he had 14 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes, highlighted by a five-point flurry after New Orleans trimmed the lead to two late in the third quarter.

"He's still going to be an aggressive scorer off the bench," said Nowitzki, who had eight of his season-low 10 points in the fourth quarter. "That's still going to be his thing. I don't think the game changes much for him."

His role will revert back to the norm when the timing is right.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.