Matt Barnes holds the key for Orlando
The Magic's defensive specialist must be healthy enough to play stopper against Boston
About his back, he simply says, "I'm all right."
The Orlando Magic can only hope. Because going into Game 2 against what has all of a sudden become the most dangerous team in the NBA -- the Boston Celtics -- the Magic are going to need Matt Barnes more than any other player on their roster if they plan on getting back to where they once belonged.
Yes, you read that right: Matt Barnes.
Think not? Think Dwight Howard or Jameer Nelson or Vince Carter will have more impact? Be more important to the Magic?
Think again. Barnes, who was limited in action (15 minutes) and production (two points) in Game 1 due to recurring spasms in the lower left area of his back, might be the biggest key to keeping Orlando the favorite to represent the East in the Finals.
The talk on the streets from L.A. to Chicago to Brooklyn is that Barnes single-handedly destroyed Joe Johnson's summer. And tens of millions of dollars of Johnson's future money in the process.
"I hope not," Barnes says. "I mean, Joe's a good dude. I never want to be the reason why someone doesn't get [the] money. This is a business, and you have to get the money while you can. But I know my role on this team, and my goal on this team is to guard the other team's best player night-in, night-out."
Barnes' "night-in, night-out" on Johnson during Orlando's second-round sweep of Atlanta was reminiscent of the night-in, night-out defense the late, great then-unknown Dennis Johnson put on then-all-world superstar David Thompson in a 1978 playoff series that became DJ's coronation in the basketball world. Joe Johnson's 2009-10 regular season was a buildup to what was supposed to be a free-agency bonanza for him this summer: 21.3 points per game, 45.8 percent from the field, one of the leaders on a very good Hawks team. But against the Magic and Barnes in the playoffs, he averaged 12.75 points and shot 29.8 percent in four straight losses. He made three 3-pointers in the entire series.
It took Barnes, a six-year veteran who signed with the Magic last summer after a season in Phoenix, time to find his place this season on a team that was trying to rebuild without taking any steps backward.
"Before I came over here," he says, "Orlando was a team I admired from afar last year. You know, I watched them in the Finals [a five-game loss to the Lakers]. And -- I'm not afraid to say it now -- I told the team when I got here that I thought they were soft and what they were doing out there was soft."
Barnes saw the same thing everyone else saw in four of the five games the Magic played against the Lakers last June. They were an extension of Dwight Howard's beautiful personality, a team reminiscent of San Antonio before players such as Mario Elie and Stephen Jackson put on Spurs uniforms and got tough, a team that needed a bad guy on the roster to dethrone the champs.
And now, they have one in Barnes, who is not afraid to not be loved. Don't let his appearances on VH1's "Basketball Wives" (where his fiancée, Gloria Govan, appears) or his UCLA pedigree confuse you. Barnes knows that even though he's cool and civil off the court -- he called me "Mr. Jackson" during our interview -- he had to be the one to step up in Orlando if the Magic were going to avoid a "lacking toughness" label.
Someone had to change the culture.
"I've always been a football player at heart," says Barnes, an honorable mention All-American wide receiver in high school in California. "I grew up playing football. I'm a big fan of football. I really look at myself as a football player that happens to play basketball. So I go out there to play aggressive and not shy away from contact. And I knew once I got here, with the edge I always play with, I just sort of brought that along with me to the team.
"So just the mentality of not being afraid in that aspect helps. Some people don't want the contact, but that's something I don't have a problem with. Not that I'm trying to encourage anybody or anything, but if the game gets physical, you know, that's what I enjoy. That's what I prefer."
It seems that every season in the NBA, there's a team that's one player away from getting over the mythical hump. The Magic had options for finding that player this season: (1) the return of injured point guard Jameer Nelson to run the squad; (2) the addition of Vince Carter to replace Hedo Turkoglu and balance the team; and (3) the introduction of power forward Brandon Bass to reduce the reliance on Howard for every rebound and every blocked shot and every defensive stop in the post.
But somehow, in the midst of getting halfway to what they hope is their playoff destiny (eight wins down, eight wins to go), the pendulum shifted. The reality settled in that they still needed someone who could shut down -- or at least make scoring life very difficult for -- players such as Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Without that element, a championship will not be won.
Against the Celtics right now, the Magic are looking to Barnes for it. And although Howard is the best player on the team and Nelson is its heart and soul, the Magic don't return to the Finals if Barnes' play doesn't carry over from the last series, if he doesn't find a way to do to Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (his assignments will switch from game to game) what he's being given credit for doing to Johnson.
Not saying that Howard, Nelson, Carter, Rashard Lewis or Mickael Pietrus aren't reasons Orlando can win, but any of them can have a bad game and the Magic can still walk away with a W.
But if Barnes has a bad game, if he doesn't live up to the "Ron Artest of the East" tag that's now being placed on him, the Magic don't win. Period.
Which leaves open the question: At this point of the playoffs, is Matt Barnes the most important player in an Orlando Magic uniform?
Jackson: "Is the media and or the league sleeping on what you do?"
Barnes: "On me or on the whole team?"
Jackson: "On you."
Barnes: "Umm, you know, that really doesn't bother me. I'm not the type of person that wants that type of attention. But the one thing that kind of made me laugh was -- and not that I'm the best defender in the league by any means -- when the All-Defensive teams came out, that there are 10 people out there who play as well as I do on the defensive end. I mean, at the end of the day, all I want to win is a championship, so it's not a big deal. But I try to go out there and show them with my play that they made a mistake."
As he gets ready to go into battle for the rest of the playoffs, Barnes is trying to put the back injury behind him.
"I didn't get a chance to get it real loose tonight," he told reporters after Game 1. "But it's no excuse. I didn't get it done. Coach [Stan Van Gundy] had to go with someone who was ready. I am going to continue to get treatment and I'll be ready for Game 2."
It's here. It's now. And Barnes has to reach back to the mentality he's carried with him all season long for the Magic to get past the team that slayed the King.
"I'm playing on a one-year contract," he says to me. "So I'm going out there to do my job and hopefully shut down other players. It's like I'm playing for my life every night."
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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