OAKLAND -- One sensational play in the playoffs can often introduce a young NBA player to a nation, and that certainly might have been the case for Warriors rookie Harrison Barnes.
Barnes' early fourth-quarter drive for a gravity-defying behind-the-head, two-handed dunk -- and the subsequent frenzied reaction of the Warriors' bench -- was replayed dozens of times across the country after Golden State's 131-117 Game 2 win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
But to hear the Warriors tell it, that dunk and Barnes' overall game performance -- 24 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal -- simply represented the culmination of a sustained progression the athletic small forward has made over the course of the long season.
"He had the best game all season for him," coach Mark Jackson said Wednesday. "But make no mistake about it, he has been a big-time player for us all year, it just didn't jump out on the stats. We were able to have the success we had all year starting a rookie at the small forward position because of what he did for us defensively, being a ball mover and a guy who picked and chose his spots when to be aggressive. He had a breakout night (Tuesday) night."
But even Jackson did not see that dunk coming.
"No, I did not," the coach said. "It was awfully impressive, and then looking at it on the replay and looking at some photos of it ... it's an opportunity for him to make a name for himself and be recognized."
"Incredible," guard Jarrett Jack said. "I'm still trying to fathom how he was able to muster that dunk, but it was definitely one of the top plays I've ever seen playing basketball, period."
Without question, Barnes' big game helped fill the offensive void of David Lee's absence, but it wasn't a concerted part of the game plan going in. The former University of North Carolina standout just took it upon himself to step up with more opportunities to be a factor at the offensive end.
"Last night was a thing of beauty of when to attack, when to settle and when to be aggressive," Jackson said. "He played spectacular, and I don't think it had anything to do with David being gone. I just think he's just a guy who's not afraid of the moment. He likes it when the lights shine the brightest."
"Sometimes you have to force the issue to keep yourself going," added Jack. "Harrison's made some plays here recently that I haven't seen out of him. Tip dunks, drives to the basket, he's also been able to come up with big defensive plays for us. He's that athletic piece I think can match up with so many different positions, and he's become that kind of versatile guy that every team needs."
Barnes wasn't the only rookie whoexcelled in Game 2. Center Festus Ezeli and forward Draymond Green also had solid stints off the bench, and down the stretch. Jackson was impressed by all of them, particularly in the second half when the Warriors were trying to protect the lead they'd built.
"You can almost take it for granted, looking out on the floor," said Jackson. "But we're in a hostile environment, playing against the No. 3 seed in front of 19,000-20,000 people, they're starting a run, and we've got three rookies on the floor. But they are not afraid. I'm awfully proud of my rookies and what they've been able to do. They're grown men, and they've come along very quickly."
Jack said he doesn't even view Barnes, Ezeli and Green as rookies anymore.
"They've played close to 90 games," he said. "Festus has started the majority of the season for us. Harrison has been a starter since Day 1. Draymond has played an integral role for us, and he's one of the more vocal leaders on the team. They've pretty much seen everything and have been put in every situation a player can be put in."