CLEVELAND — It was 28 months ago that Leandro Barbosa thought his career was over after he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament while with the Celtics, making a hard drive to the basket against Charlotte’s Ramon Sessions.
Speed was Barbosa’s game and a serious knee injury spelled trouble. The Celtics traded him to the Wizards for Jordan Crawford, although Barbosa never played a game in Washington. Unable to procure an NBA job, Barbosa signed with a Brazilian team before earning a 10-day contract with the Suns in February 2014.
After showing he was healthy playing in Brazil, Barbosa signed a one-year deal in September with the Warriors. Barbosa was much more than an aging veteran riding the bench, providing a spark in his first NBA Finals.
He averaged 5.2 points per game, including a 13-point outing in the pivotal Game 5 win over the Cavaliers.
“It was really tough for me, for my mind, for my family,” Barbosa said of the injury and recovery. “I didn’t know what was going to happen after I hurt my knee. When I got hurt, I didn’t know it was that bad. It was kind of sad, I knew I had a long way to go [to recover] and to come back to the NBA.”
Barbosa, 32, had to prove he could return to being an effective backup point guard who could get to the rim with his speed. He played in 66 regular-season games for the Warriors, averaging 7.1 points and shooting 38.4 percent from the 3-point line.
“I think I came back stronger,” he said. “And now I’m older. Not too old but I’m older. I think my role on this team has been perfect. Coach [Steve] Kerr brought me to this team for my experience and he knows I can run [an up-tempo] offense and I think it worked out really well.
“I don’t know if [Kerr] expected me to do what I’m doing now. I’m happy to be involved right now.’’
Kerr was ecstatic after Barbosa’s Game 5 performance.
“Oh, L.B. was fantastic. He gives us 13 points and 17 minutes when we had a little foul trouble early on, and his defense was good,” Kerr said. “But not surprising, really. L.B. has been around a long time. He’s got a lot of playoff experience, and he’s had an excellent series for us.”
Stephen Curry, the league MVP, was just as complimentary.
“L.B. came in and did what he was supposed to do and impacted the game on the offensive end and defensive end,” Curry said.
LeBron James was asked before Game 6 whether he deserved the Finals MVP, even if the Cavaliers lost the series. He finished the Finals averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists.
“I wouldn’t feel good about it at all,’’ said James. “Because at the end of the day, I’m here to win a team prize. My goal is to win a championship, not an individual prize.”
Alas, the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala was named MVP of the Finals.
The last player from a losing team to win the award was Jerry West of the Lakers in 1969. He averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.4 assists in the seven-game loss to the Celtics.
Boston’s John Havlicek made a case for the MVP, averaging 28.3 points, 11 rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
All the same
Kerr won five NBA titles as a player — three with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and two with the Tim Duncan-led Spurs — and he said before Game 6 the experience as coach before a potential close-out game is the same.
“I’ve got a lot of memories of playing in the Finals,” Kerr said. “The thing that doesn’t change as a player or as a coach is it just feels like you’re waiting. You’re waiting and waiting and waiting. The whole playoff run is such a long grind. I mean, it’s been two months for these two teams that are still standing, and it’s a great test of your patience and your will and your perseverance, because it really is a roller coaster ride as you go.
“But we’re here and we’ve persevered and we have a chance to do something special.”