Lakers forward Matt Barnes scores against Nuggets power forward Al Harrington… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The tide appeared to shift Friday night at Staples Center.
Denver had just cut its deficit to one in the final minutes, and the Lakers needed someone who could provide them with a cushion. Yet, they faced a few constraints.
Kobe Bryant remained sidelined for the fourth consecutive game because of a sore left shin. The Nuggets were fronting Andrew Bynum in the post and double teaming him if he did get an entry pass. And Pau Gasol also faced a swarming defense when the Lakers looked for him.
But there stood Matt Barnes wide open on the perimeter. When the Lakers needed a trusty scoring option, he delivered. His three-pointer with 2:42 remaining provided the proverbial dagger in the Lakers' 103-97 victory over the Nuggets, clinching a playoff spot. It also represented one of many examples where Barnes' 24 points on nine-of-11 shooting and 10 rebounds, his highest scoring output in two seasons with the Lakers, happened in timely moments.
"Big shots," said Lakers assistant coach John Kuester, who took the head-coaching duties after Mike Brown left before the game for personal reasons. "I thought his energy was outstanding throughout the basketball game."
Barnes was particularly clutch in the fourth quarter, when he scored six consecutive points in the final minutes. Following his three-pointer, Barnes made one of two free throws, scored on a running jumper and then fed Bynum for layup.
"There's talk all year that the bench can't do this and other guys can't do that," said Barnes, who scored double-digit points in consecutive games for the third time with the Lakers. "This team is a very talented team and we know our roles. That's the key. My job is not going to be to score like this every night. My job is to bring energy and play hard. But when there are nights that Kobe is out, you have to step up. "
Barnes did that, prompting Metta World Peace to praise him for "playing the right way."
Barnes, though, picked up a technical foul after arguing with officials over an inbounds call as the Lakers led 94-90 with 2:24 remaining. But it applied to everything else he provided on the court.
His dunk and three-pointer helped the Lakers close out the first quarter with a 30-19 lead. Barnes extended the Lakers' halftime lead to 54-48 after grabbing a loose ball and swishing a 16-foot rainbow jumper. Barnes' fluid off-ball movement and cutting ensured crisp ball movement.
"Matt Barnes is on a whole other level right now," World Peace said. "He's very fired up. You see the red in his eyes. We all need to get on his level."
Bynum described Barnes as "always a box of energy." Lakers backup guard Steve Blake said "every winning team needs someone like him."
Yet, there were times Barnes didn't fit that description.
Before his double-digit output, he hit a five-game stretch where he shot five of 31 from the field. Barnes fought frustrations over his fluctuating role, which ranged from the Lakers' third small forward, to starter and as a backup to World Peace. He also faces uncertainty this offseason when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
But he demonstrated against Denver how he plans to fight through it.
"Just be mentally strong," Barnes said. "There hasn't been anything easy in my career, period. It's been a roller coaster to say the least. But you have to stay mentally strong and be ready when your number is called."