It’s hard to believe eight games into the Celtics season that Leandro Barbosa was a free agent into October, waiting for calls.
A dispute with former agent Dan Fegan and a seemingly anonymous aura kept the phones quiet. Barbosa is a valuable commodity but disappeared during his years in Toronto and was thrown into a difficult situation at the trade deadline last season with the Pacers, for whom he was expected to be a reliable bench scorer for a playoff team.
In his humble style, Barbosa spoke with coach Doc Rivers about his potential role after the sides agreed to a contract. And as he does with every veteran acquisition, Rivers promised nothing but an opportunity. Ten years in the NBA provided little equity.
Barbosa understood and let his skills to do his talking. He wowed coaches in practice and has earned the role of primary backup point guard to Rajon Rondo, despite lacking experience at the position.
When Rondo is healthy, Barbosa isn’t expected to play the point in extensive stretches. But that wasn’t the case at TD Garden Wednesday night against the Jazz. Rondo left with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter after twisting his right ankle on a drive to the basket.
Barbosa entered and played the next 16:55, steadying the offense as Boston spent the rest of the evening staving off Utah rallies in a 98-93 win. Barbosa sparked the Celtics with his scoring in the first half, but in the third and fourth quarters, he was asked to facilitate the offense.
Because he is not a true point guard, Barbosa acknowledged he isn’t well-versed in the offense, so Rivers called limited sets and allowed Barbosa to run the team on instinct. Barbosa was the primary backup to Steve Nash in those Phoenix days under Mike D’Antoni (wonder what he’s up to now?).
“Barbosa was terrific; he bailed us out,” Rivers said. “Not only just replacing Rondo, I thought in the first half, I thought our starters started the game out pretty flat and I thought our second unit gave us a surge. And obviously Rondo goes out in the second half and just putting LB in and we didn’t much because he doesn’t know much. But everything was basically pick-and-rolls and we told him to just keep attacking the basket and we’ll figure it out from there.”
That rag-tag style is to Barbosa’s liking because of those up-tempo Phoenix days. He is at his best with impromptu moves and allowing his offensive skills to take over. He was 4 for 5 shooting taking over for Rondo for 9 of his 16 points.
It’s been hit or miss for Barbosa. In the opener against the Heat, he came off the bench for 16 points in 16 minutes, earning Rivers’s trust and playing time. Over the next six games, Barbosa averaged 2.5 points and was 7 for 23 from the field.
And then Wednesday, when the Celtics needed an offensive spark off the bench and a ballhander, Barbosa provided both.
“I just tried to play the way I know, tried to help the team with my energy,” he said. “I think the second group did a great job. We brought a lot of energy and that helps us out. Most of the time when I am on the bench, I watch Rondo play. That’s what he wanted to do, run, and it worked out really well.”
Rivers is the primary reason veterans want to play for the Celtics, but he doesn’t sugarcoat his pitches and that doesn’t always go over well. Jermaine O’Neal complained this summer about a lack of offensive chances. Rivers told Shaquille O’Neal that his days of being a primary offensive option were over when he signed with the Celtics.
Unsure of Barbosa’s conditioning or how much he had left, Rivers told the Brazilian sparkplug he may very well be the final man on the bench. But the Celtics lack a primary backup to Rondo and Rivers believed Jason Terry and Courtney Lee could compensate, but he put his trust in Barbosa.
Naturally, Barbosa’s production isn’t close to Rondo, who collected his 100th assist of the season Wednesday in just 310 minutes. Barbosa has 13 in 100 minutes, but he can push the ball and is a reliable scorer on the pick-and-roll with his ability to streak to the basket.
Rivers doesn’t use players on reputation. The Celtics signed Jason Collins and Darko Milicic as backup centers and both have played sparingly. The fact Barbosa has secured minutes off the bench is a testament to his talent and versatility.
“He’s earned it. I tell everybody, ‘Listen, we sign you, and you come, and there’s no guarantees that you’re going to play,’ ” Rivers said. “But if you earn it, you get to play. And he’s earned it. He deserves to play.”