It is a delicate balance. I think everyone would tell you that. Playing with emotion and toughness can often lead to playing out of control. Something that can help your team one moment can be the thing that betrays you the next.
Matt Barnes lives on this edge. That is his job and role for Orlando.
Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it hurts.
Sunday night and Friday night, Barnes’ emotion hurt him and his team. In a game like February’s win over the Lakers, his emotion and physicality gave Orlando energy and gave Barnes something of a mental edge over Kobe Bryant.
Everyone on the Magic loves Barnes and loves what he can give the team. There is something in Barnes that the franchise has frankly never had in its history. Orlando always has seemed to take the safer path and acquire and sign players who would not mix it up physically. At least since the Shaquille O’Neal and Horace Grant days.
The best post defenders from O’Neal/Grant to Howard? Um… Rony Seikaly? Andrew DeClercq? Ben Wallace before he became a beast? Bo Outlaw?
The best perimeter defenders since Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson were traded to today? Ron Mercer, maybe. Tracy McGrady when he did not have to carry any scoring load? Darrell Armstrong or Cuttino Mobley, perhaps? Doug Christie?
Not an elite list of defenders. Perimeter defense has always been a thorn in Orlando’s side throughout its history. Acquiring Dwight Howard built the foundation for a great defensive team.
But as Orlando learned in last season’s playoffs, getting another person to throw at the LeBron James’ and Kobe Bryant’s of the world to make their lives uncomfortable is a great asset. It is hard to think of a time Orlando has had this good a collection of perimeter defenders — and yes Howard makes them all look that much better.
Barnes is a big piece of that.
He has given the Magic a physical edge (at least the thought of having one) they have not had in a long time. He complements Howard inside. He is one person — with Mickael Pietrus — who the team can be confident will force a difficult shot.
To do this, Barnes plays a very physical brand and he has always been known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve. That can sometimes be a good thing.
Hard to think if anyone can stop Bryant or get into his head. But it certainly looked like Barnes annoyed Bryant and got under his skin in a way few players can. He was physical and contested every shot. When Bryant got in Barnes’ face, he did not shrivel. A lot of it was antics, but it helped Orlando prevail in that game.
But that emotion can also be a very bad thing.
The shoving match he was involved in Sunday was a sign of how his emotions sometime get the best of him. That attitude has led to a couple run ins with coach Stan Van Gundy in recent games — including a spat about playing time during that game against Atlanta. Those might be the reasons why Orlando got Barnes for the bargain basement price they did this summer.
Barnes lives by playing on that edge. That is just who he is.
There is a lot of negatives that come with that. But there are a lot of positives too. It gives Orlando a defensive player unlike any they had and urges the rest of the team to play with that same mental toughness.
The Magic don’t go defensively as Barnes goes — that is still Dwight Howard’s job. But the energy level he plays with is infectious and the focus he brings permeates throughout the team when he is balancing on that edge correctly. When he is not, he can be a distraction and a detriment to his team.
I think his focus will be there in the postseason and he will be ready to play once the playoffs begin. Sunday’s incident will be as Stan Van Gundy said, a lesson for Barnes to know where to keep his energy and emotions.
As Barnes mentioned on Twitter earlier this week, he is ready for the postseason to get started when the real battles begin.