Thursday May 19th, 2011

DALLAS -- J.J. Barea is listed at an even 6-foot.

He says he is closer to 5-foot-10.

Rick Carlisle says Barea is "bigger than he looks."

Jason Terry, respectfully, disagrees. "Midget" was the word Terry chose to describe Barea's size. Tyson Chandler went with "featherweight."

"Or," Chandler asks, "is there something smaller?"

Barea smiles and nods when he hears this. Just a little good-natured ribbing from teammates who have long since grown to respect him. Besides, it's nothing he hasn't heard before. Barea heard about his size as a youth growing up in Puerto Rico, where he routinely was the shortest kid on the floor. He heard about it at Northeastern, where he went from an under-recruited prospect to a two-time finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard. And he has heard about it the last five years in the NBA, where every season he has had to prove himself to opponents, teammates and coaches who doubt him.

"He gets underestimated," Terry said. "But I don't think he will be for much longer."

Not if he keeps playing like he did in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. Barea scored 21 points (on 8-of-12 shooting) in an economical 16 minutes in Dallas' 121-112 win. He made shots coming off screens, from behind screens and on hard drives to the paint. At the Thunder's practice on Wednesday, players and coaches gave Dirk Nowitzki (48 points in Game 1) his due. But it was Barea's name that usually was brought up next.

"We knew he was capable of doing that," said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks. "We talked about him quite a bit the last two days. We know Dirk is going to be tough to stop, but Barea, I thought, was a big factor in their win. He traps, sets great screens and he never stops working. He's fun to watch. Except when you have to coach against him."

Rick Carlisle knows this. Now he does, anyway. When Carlisle was hired in 2008, he wasn't sure if Barea could play for him. Too small, Carlisle thought. Not athletic enough to last. So Carlisle made Barea earn his spot. He rode him hard in training camp and made him spend extra hours honing his game.

"He kept trying to make me prove to him that I could play," Barea said. "It took me 10 games into the season to get his confidence in me. We've been good since then."

Said Carlisle, "He's a resourceful player. He's been told he's too small. Undrafted. Not enough this, too much that. But he's an important guy for us."

Terry didn't used to think much of Barea, either. The veteran guard was in his third year with the Mavericks when Barea signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2006. Terry recalls knocking Barea down in several practices. And he recalls just as clearly Barea quickly popping back up.

"He's one of the feistiest guys in the league," Terry said. "When he first got here, I'd try to bulldog him and make a point that [I'm] a veteran and [I'm] going to run him over. But he never backed down. He would get up and get right in my face. That's the toughness he brought since Day 1."

Toughness is something Barea isn't lacking. In Game 4 of the conference semifinals against the Lakers, an airborne Barea was leveled by a forearm from Andrew Bynum that sent him crashing to the court. Bynum was ejected and subsequently suspended five games of next season for the hit. Barea stayed in the game.

"You have to like contact," Barea said. "When people question you, you have to bounce right back up and don't show you're hurt."

Barea doesn't hear many questions these days. He played 81 games for Dallas this season, averaging a career-high 9.5 points and 3.9 assists. He is a key part of a Mavericks bench that led the league in points (40.4) in the regular season and posted 53 in Game 1 against the Thunder. He still gets quizzical looks from arena security guards after games, he says, but "it doesn't happen too often anymore." Throw in the prospect of a big raise in a new contract next season, and suddenly the man who had to fight for respect is living a pretty good life.

"No matter what happens, I know I have to keep working," Barea said. "It's the way I have been my whole life. I've got to keep learning, keep getting more experience and hopefully things will work out."

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