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Leandro Barbosa goes to the basket during Wednesday's win over the Jazz.BOSTON -- Monday night against the Bulls, Leandro Barbosa's relief for Rajon Rondo was a welcome surprise. Wednesday night against the Jazz, it was a necessity.
When Rondo went down after rolling his right ankle at the 4:54 mark of the third quarter and didn't return, the Celtics gave Barbosa the keys to the car. His instructions: Drive fast when you can, but don't drive us off a cliff. Translation: If you can score in transition, do it; otherwise, try to get the team into some kind of offensive set.
The guidelines might have been a little shaky for Barbosa, given he's still getting acclimated to the Celtics' system. But the quick-footed guard came through in commendable fashion, finishing with 16 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists in a season-high 23 minutes as Boston held on to win by five.
"Barbosa was terrific," said coach Doc Rivers. "I mean, he bailed us out. 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 with Courtney Lee and Barbosa, Jared [Sullinger], that group gave us a spurt -- Jeff Green. And then obviously Rondo goes out in the second half and just putting LB in, and we didn’t run much because he doesn’t know much. But everything was basically pick-and-rolls. We told him to just keep attacking to the basket and we’ll figure it out from there."
Attacking the basket was never going to be the issue for Barbosa, who, even before Rondo went down, had picked up where he left off in that department on Monday. Against the Bulls, all three of his buckets came on quick drives to the rim, and he continued his relentless assault on the basket when he first stepped onto the court on Wednesday. He registered seven of his 16 points in the first half, but became even more assertive once Rondo was forced to leave the game.
Barbosa -- who Jeff Green nicknamed as Road Runner, after the speedy cartoon character -- checked in immediately after Rondo came up limping, and proceeded to score six of Boston's next eight points, all of which came on steady drives to the basket. Utilizing the backboard, Barbosa made a habit of streaking in at difficult angles and banking many of his shots in high off the glass, getting the ball above the arms of outstretched defenders.
"I just tried to play what I know and I tried to help the team with my energy," said Barbosa. "I think the second group did a good job, the bench. We brought a lot of energy, and that helped us out."
The Celtics have leaned on Rondo late in games all season, but without their best playmaker, they were forced to improvise a little bit. They stressed advancing the ball up the floor quickly, even off of made baskets, and even though Boston registered just a single fast break point in the final frame, that uptempo mindset played to Barbosa's strengths and helped him guide the C's for all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter.
"It was really important [to push the pace]," Barbosa said. "I think that's the way we want to play most of the time. When I'm on the bench, I watch Rondo play. That's what he wants to do -- run. And it works out really well. I like to do that, too. So, it was a great thing.
"For me it's much easier, and I feel a lot more comfortable playing that way. But I'm getting comfortable, too, with the plays. The coaches have been working out with me on the side. I'm almost there."
Alluding to the depth they'll certainly need to rely on at times this season, the Celtics were pleased to see themselves pull out a victory without having Rondo for the final period.
"Well it was definitely something new for us, but it's great to see that we can pull it out without [Rondo]," said Jason Terry. "Stuff happens throughout the course of a season, and any man can go down at any time, but guys stay ready. Barbosa came in, stepped in, had a hell of a game tonight."
Wednesday reinforced how much of a steal Barbosa was for Boston, which signed him to a veteran's minimum deal just before the start of the season. Though it's still unclear how Rivers will use him consistently moving forward, having a player of his caliber on the bench is never going to hurt a team.
"Some days, some games I won't have a lot of minutes, and I know that," Barbosa said. "When they called me, I knew that, too, but just to be here and to try to help... is what matters for me."
The pace at which Barbosa learns Boston's system might see some forced acceleration heading into Thursday's matchup with the Nets in Brooklyn. With Rondo's status up in the air still, Rivers might be forced to alter his team's approach and insert a few basic plays that Barbosa can quickly get a handle on. They'll likely take a similar approach to Wednesday's fourth quarter, and lean a bit more on the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
"Just play the game, go with the flow, try to do the same thing I did [Wednesday], bring a lot of energy, and make sure I get sets for the other guys, especially Paul and Garnett," Barbosa said of what he'll look to do if Rondo's out. "But we just want to win...so that's what we want to keep doing."