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By Mike Tulumello
East Valley Tribune
June 1, 2006
Leandro Barbosa took an imaginary pay raise Tuesday night. Before he entered the Suns’ crucial Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, coach Mike D’Antoni advised him, “Play like you’re making $50 million.”
“I said, ‘Oh, no problem. Let’s do that,’ ” Barbosa said.
So he went out and played with the confidence of the NBA’s highest-salaried player.
Barbosa shredded the Dallas Mavericks’ defense, proving — once again — that when he’s at the top of his game, no single player on the Mavericks or any other team can guard him.
Maybe this is what’s next for Barbosa: NBA opponents will have to double cover the NBA’s speediest player.
“He’s the X-factor,” teammate James Jones said of Barbosa after “The Brazilian Blur” lit up the Mavericks for 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting (including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers).
“There’s nothing they can do to script or prepare for his speed . . . There’s no one on their team who can keep up with him.
“We play fast as it is. But he gives us a level nobody else can reach.”
That speed is magnified when Barbosa plays alongside Steve Nash and Raja Bell. Both can spread the floor with their perimeter shooting, and Nash, of course, is adept at finding anyone who’s open.
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When Barbosa is rolling, as he was Tuesday, “He gives us depth, scoring and spreads the floor,” Nash said.
When the floor is spread open, the Suns are at their fastest.
“And when we’re a faster team, it helps showcase Leandro’s talents even more,” D’Antoni said.
So it probably was no coincidence that Barbosa struggled in Bell’s absence, then exploded upon his return.
“He creates a lot of energy and confidence for everybody,” Barbosa said of Bell.
Yet Barbosa is a growing threat apart from those who surround him. Jones pointed out that Barbosa is “faster than you’d expect” considering his solid (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) build.
“He’s not frail or light at all.”
Not only that, but with his long arms, “He’s built kind of funny in that he’s a lot longer than his height.”
And, “For someone with his speed, he likes contact and can finish plays with contact,” Jones said. “That’s unusual.”
That speed can work both ways.
At times, Barbosa flies toward the hoop so fast that the rim seems to be in his rearview mirror by the time he lets go of the ball.
On Tuesday, “I had control of my speed better than in the other games.”
Less tangibly, Barbosa is a much more confident player, one who can bounce back more easily from the NBA’s ups and downs than in previous years.
When somebody asked him if he’d lost confidence during his off games, Barbosa treated the question as if somebody had asked him if he could beat Pat Burke in a 40-yard dash.
“You cannot lose your confidence,” he said. “Why would I lose it?”
Barbosa’s highs and lows have come at a challenging time for him off the floor.
His mother Ivete has been struggling with health problems. Between those concerns and civil unrest in his native Brazil, Barbosa flew his mother to Phoenix, where she’s now living with her son.
During Leandro’s big game on Tuesday, “She got a little excited at the game.”
Ivete received oxygen and was taken home. So her son bolted the locker room right after the game and headed home.
“She’s feeling better,” Barbosa said. “I’m excited she’s here with me. I went six months without seeing her.”
His mom will have to endure more excitement as the Suns approach the biggest games for the franchise in 13 years.
And she may have to avoid blinking to really see Leandro at his best. Or to see him at all.
COPYRIGHT 2006, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.