Role players and their roles are magnified during the playoffs, especially the NBA Finals. For better or for worse—whether it was Nate Robinson and Glen Davis‘ Shrek and Donkey routine in Game 4 last year or Courtney Lee‘s would-be game winner in 2009—non-stars have the moment thrust upon them in the NBA Finals. John Paxson hit the game-winner in Game 6 for the Bulls in 1993. Robert Horry went bonkers against the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals. Dirk Nowitski, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade rightfully have their names on the marquee, but other pieces of the puzzle will be heard from in this series. In the 2011 edition of the NBA Finals, two of the supporting characters have D-League ties.
JJ Barea and Joel Anthony don’t have a lot in common, but they share an NBA journey that included time in the NBA Development League. If the Dallas Mavericks complete their dominating postseason run to win their franchise’s first NBA title this season, Barea will add his name to the short but growing list of D-League players who went on to win an NBA championsho[. If the Miami Heat cap off their remarkable season, which began last summer with The Decision, with the franchise’s second championship, Anthony will join the likes of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, who played in the D-League prior to winning back-to-back titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Like Brown and Farmar, Barea and Anthony are not stars at the NBA level. Neither player will be staking claim to an MVP award any time soon, but each has made significant contributions to their respective team’s success and shown how D-League players can be successful at the next level.
Barea, the pint-sized backup point guard for the Mavericks has provided energy and instant offense for Dallas off the bench. After averaging just under 10 points in 20.5 minutes per game this season, he has averaged better than 11 points per game in each of the past two series, helping Dallas win eight of their past nine games.
Barea garnered national attention for his 22-point, 8-assist performance in Dallas’ 122-86 thrashing of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had no answer for Barea’s penetration all series long, and with that game in hand, Lakers center Andrew Bynum leveled Barea with a forearm as Barea soared in the lane. Bynum was immediately ejected and Barea was OK, but it was a nasty spill. Not only did Barea bounce back from the hit, he began the next series with another 20+ point performance, helping Dallas off to a 1-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Barea scoring in bunches is nothing new to those who knew him in the D-League. In the 2005-06 season, he was assigned to the Fort Worth Flyers. He proceeded to light up the scoreboards, topping 40 points twice, and averaging 27.2 points, 7.8 assists, and 5 rebounds in 8 games, before he was reclaimed by the Mavs. Now in his fifth year in the league, Barea gives Dallas a change-of-pace point guard who fills in expertly behind future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd.
While Barea’s primary contributions are on offense, Joel Anthony has proven valuable to the Miami Heat’s defensive gameplan. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade roaming the perimeter, Miami has had one of the top defensive units all season, but there were always questions about who would lockdown the paint. Miami brought in veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire, and Juwan Howard, but none of them have the athleticism of Anthony, who is just 28 years old and in his fourth year out of UNLV.
Anthony played three games on assignment with the Iowa Energy during the 2007-08 season, averaging 8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 24.3 minutes per game. The number that stands out there is surely his 4 blocks per game, and it’s been that defensive presence that has enabled him to find time on the floor with this Miami Heat team.
With LeBron, DWade, and Chris Bosh, scoring is not a high priority from the role players in Miami. Anthony’s averaging just 3.3 points per game in 30.1 minutes this postsesaon. And what the numbers don’t show, the win column does. Anthony came off the bench against Philadelphia in round one and to start the second round against Boston. But after Miami lost Game 3 against Boston, Erik Spoelstra inserted Anthony into the starting lineup. Miami won the next two games to close out the Celtics and Anthony has started every game since. The Heat are 6-1 this postseason withAnthony in the starting lineup (they were 6-2 with him coming off the bench), but it’s hard to argue with the way they defended against Boston and Chicago.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Anthony averaged 3 blocks per game, finding ways to impact the games without scoring. As the Heat prepare to square off against the Mavs, they undoubtedly will look for Anthony to control the paint and deter penetration from the Dallas guards, including—you guessed it—fellow D-League alum JJ Barea.
Though Barea and Anthony likely won’t decide who wins the 2011 NBA Finals, each player has the potential to make key plays that could turn the tide of a game or two. With the way these teams have stormed through the first three rounds (both Dallas and Miami are 12-3 this postseason), one or two game-changing moments may be the difference between celebration and frustration at the end of what promises to be a captivating championship series.