HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — About five hours before Sunday’s tip at Toronto, Minnesota Timberwolves point guard J.J. Barea was chirping away about how good his body feels, how his killer quickness is back and the excitement about his club’s chances for a breakthrough season, even with stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio sidelined.
After a lockout-shortened and injury-riddled season — one that he called “brutal” and one that limited him to just 41 of 66 games after he signed a four-year, $19 million contract to join the Timberwolves — Barea focused on getting his body right.
“For me, it was more about feeling good, getting quicker again and feeling good and feeling fast again, and that’s pretty much what I did,” Barea told NBA.com in a phone conversation Sunday afternoon. “I feel great right now, so hopefully I can keep it going.”
And then midway through the second quarter of a one-point game with the Raptors, Barea drove the baseline and launched his compact body — listed at 6-foot, but realistically no taller than 5-foot-9 — and scored at the rim. But he crashed to the court and then appeared to get kicked in the head before his head thumped the hardwood.
Visibly woozy, Barea’s night would be over. He was diagnosed with a “mild” concussion and Minnesota was down to guards Luke Ridnour, an out-of-sorts Brandon Roy and Will Conroy to run the offense. After committing just 11 turnovers in a season-opening win against Sacramento, the Timberwolves coughed it up 24 times in Toronto and were blown out in the fourth quarter, losing 105-86.
A team official said Barea appeared to be feeling better after the game. He’ll have to pass a battery of NBA-mandated tests before being cleared to play. The Timberwolves could badly use him Monday night in their lone visit with Deron Williams and the Nets in their brand-new Brooklyn home.
The undeniable fact is the jitterbug Barea, who helped Dallas to a title in 2011, is critical to keeping the re-tooled Wolves relevant in the Western Conference while Rubio and Love are on the sidelines.
Barea was off to a fast start. He had 21 points, five assists and four rebounds, and a team-best plus-26 in 28 minutes off the bench in the season-opening win over the Sacramento Kings. He already had nine points in eight minutes Sunday when he groggily made his way to the locker room.
“It’s real crucial,” Barea said prior to the game about being able to stay healthy. “Everybody’s got to step it up. We’re trying to get a good start here and win a couple games and when Kevin gets back go on a little bit of a run, and then whenever Ricky gets back, for the first time we’ll have the whole team together, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Barea is in his seventh NBA season. An undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, he is the prototypical underdog, American dream and national hero all in one. The most popular sports figure in Puerto Rico, Barea, 28, is also now an elder statesman.
Only Ridnour and newcomers Andrei Kirilenko and Lou Admundson have more NBA service time.
“I liked being a young guy over there in Dallas, but now it’s a little different,” Barea said. “This is a real young team, I got a lot of experience, you know I won the championship with Dallas. Coach is asking a lot out of me as an example of what it takes to win.”
Barea knows to do that he must stay on the floor.