Barnes will play increasingly vital role in Finals 

click to enlarge Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) shoots against Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during the second half of Game 5 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 27, 2015. - BEN MARGOT/AP PHOTO
  • Ben Margot/AP Photo
  • Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) shoots against Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during the second half of Game 5 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 27, 2015.

He has a completely different understanding of professional basketball and a completely different understanding of himself these days, but a year ago, when Harrison Barnes was a struggling NBA forward trying to find his place both on the Warriors and within the sport, he had a conversation with Steve Kerr.

​At that time, Kerr had just taken the job coaching the Warriors. He was broadcasting the NBA playoffs for TNT, and he called up Barnes and told him about the experience of The Finals, of what it meant and what it felt like. And then Kerr said, “I think we have the potential to get there next year, if we just tweak a few things.”

​One of the major tweaks, it turned out, was Barnes himself. His first two seasons in the league after starring at North Carolina, Barnes envisioned the NBA as an isolation league, as a one-on-one game. For the most part — with the exception of last year’s playoffs — he struggled to reconcile that with his own abilities. “If you can score the ball,” he says now of his thought process, “you’ll have a spot on the court.”

​But it also meant that Barnes was taking difficult shots. In those one-on-one situations, Barnes said, even the best players in the league — the Kevin Durants of the world — shoot maybe 30 or 40 percent. Barnes was shooting worse than that, in the mid-to-high 20s on isolation looks, and “feeling horrible.” He was pressing. He wasn’t relaxed. He wasn’t fluid.

​But that’s not the offense Kerr wanted to run. That was one of the primary tweaks Kerr made in taking over the Warriors from Mark Jackson, and it’s one that’s allowed Barnes to flourish. In the offseason, Barnes also trained with the legendary Jerry West, a valuable consultant to the Warriors’ front office, an experience Barnes says helped him both mentally and physically.

​The day before the Warriors’ first game this season, he found out he’d be in the starting lineup, displacing Andre Iguodala. Now, he fits into the flow of the Warriors pass-heavy, tempo-oriented offense, a fourth option beyond Draymond Green and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. In Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Houston, it was Barnes who picked up the slack after Thompson left with a head injury that eventually led to a concussion. He finished that game with 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting, the majority of his shots coming within the organic progression of an offense that now seems ideally suited to him.

​And it’s not just his offense that’s been elevated: Barnes is yet another staunch defender in a lineup loaded with them. His size and strength makes him versatile, so that he can guard big men in the low post but can also switch out on a guard. That ability to adapt on the fly, Barnes said, is what’s made him a more adept defender.

​It all clicked for Barnes early on the season. He started to believe the Warriors could make the Finals, too. He started telling his friends, in regard to Kerr, “This guy knows what he’s talking about.”

​And now, there is the question of winning the Finals, which could hinge heavily on the performance of Barnes, especially if Thompson is still sidelined. Is it possible, he was asked, that he’s benefitted more from the Warriors coaching change than any other player?

​“I never really thought about it like that,” he said. “But I’ve definitely benefitted a lot. Just the overall understanding. Just the mental side of things.”

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Michael Weinreb

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