Lakers forward Matt Barnes beats Memphis forward Marreese Speights to… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Small forward loomed as a big problem for the Lakers at the beginning of the season. After two straight strong performances, Matt Barnes has shown he deserves the chance to continue providing the solution.
Devin Ebanks started the first four games while Barnes sat and waited for chances that came only rarely. Barnes didn't play in two of the first three games and came off the bench for 18 minutes in the Lakers' fourth game, against the New York Knicks.
Since joining the starting lineup against Denver in the Lakers' fifth game, Barnes has thrown himself into the team's new defensive focus with an intensity that has carried them through some lapses. His 15-point, 10-rebound, three-block effort Sunday in the Lakers' sloppy 90-82 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies was an impressive follow-up to his 16-point, six-rebound, five-assist effort against Golden State on Friday and won him the job he thought he'd have from the outset.
"He's my small forward for the foreseeable future," Coach Mike Brown said. "He earned it and he's held onto it and he's played the right way for us at that position."
While Barnes welcomed the news, he's not taking Brown's blessing for granted.
"There's no comfort. I thought I was starting at the beginning of the year," he said. "I'm going to continue to go out there and play hard and do anything I can to help the team win."
He did that Sunday during a key sequence in the fourth quarter.
The Grizzlies had pulled close against the Lakers' second unit and Brown sent the starters back in with 9:17 to play. Though the immediate result wasn't great — Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant turned the ball over, two of the Lakers' season-high 27 turnovers — Barnes turned things around when he blocked a shot by O.J. Mayo and finished off the play at the other end by taking a pass from Derek Fisher and hitting a layup for an 80-74 lead.
He also scored the Lakers' next basket, an 18-foot jumper off one of Bryant's nine assists.
"He's playing to his strengths and he's great on the glass. Very active," Bryant said of Barnes. "He's good at getting us easy opportunities and second opportunities."
Brown echoed that praise.
"Matt Barnes played a whale of a game on both ends of the floor," Brown said. "He's playing within the system and it's exciting to see a guy at his size, with his athleticism, with energy and quickness and all that other stuff play the game the right way."
Barnes has been able to play that way because he has found his stride after the uncertainty of having to share the job with Ebanks and Metta World Peace. Ebanks didn't play for the second straight game and fifth of the last six; World Peace played only 12 minutes and 42 seconds and had two points.
"Matt played very well," World Peace said. "I think tonight was one of our best nights."
Looking at the 27 turnovers, it wasn't a gem. "We've got to clean a lot of stuff up," Barnes said. But looking at how he generated energy and settled into an effective routine, it was a step forward for him and the Lakers.
"It just feels good to be able to get a rhythm," he said. "Before, I was [in] two or three minutes here, four minutes there. It was tough to be able to get a rhythm like that.
"But hopefully I'm continuing gaining Coach's trust and my teammates' trust to put me out there in critical situations."
He has earned that trust, fighting his way back after a knee injury and surgery last season threw him off kilter.
"I think I had my footing last season before I got hurt. I think I lost all the momentum getting hurt," he said. "And coming in this summer I worked very hard to put myself in a position to succeed. It started off really rough but hopefully from here on out we continue a smooth transition."