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Steve Aschburner

Congratulations Kris Humphries, you made the All-Star team! Uh, not that All-Star team.
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When the game is already decided, these players shine

Posted Jan 1 2010 11:13AM

It's that vague point in blowout games when the orange rims and nylon nets get replaced almost imperceptibly by stainless-steel trash cans. The new clang-heavy buckets boast none of the charm or nostalgia of the peach baskets that Doc Naismith hung up high at the Y. They are, instead, meaningless repositories of meaningless stats, amassed in the final minutes of games decided long ago.

You know: Garbage time. The NBA's post-party party.

OK, so it's an unsavory term. But it's the NBA's unsavory term, more so than any other sport's. Sometimes garbage time lasts a few minutes near the end of a game. Other times it descends on the first half and stays like a stubborn smog, most often on nights when -- and this is clear soon after the opening tip -- one team arrived far more ready to play than the other.

Garbage time is nothing to run from. It ought to be embraced on those nights when Boston, Cleveland, Orlando or the Lakers meets up with New Jersey, Minnesota or Golden State. Though, sometimes, it's hard to know when the real game ends and garbage time starts.

Remember Sacramento at Chicago a few days before Christmas? Three minutes into the third quarter, the Bulls were up 79-44. They lost 102-98. Garbage time in that case kicked in for only one team -- while the Bulls went dumpster-diving, the Kings kept working. Hard.

"Sometimes it's tougher to play when you're ahead than when you're behind,'' Wizards coach Flip Saunders said the other day. "Sometimes guys just play to almost 'hang on' [to a lead]. Some teams in this league play the same whether they're 20 points ahead or 20 points behind. They don't have any tempo. Good teams know how to play tempo basketball and know that certain shots at certain times can be more productive.''

Wait, a team that's winning shouldn't just play the way it got its lead? Teams can mess themselves up if they start playing by the clock, right?

"You have to adjust to your score,'' Saunders said. "But you still have to maintain your discipline. Just because you're 20 ahead or 20 down doesn't mean you come down and just cast up shots. Everyone's seen it. Sacramento was down 35 against Chicago with [nine] minutes to go in the third quarter. If they kept on playing without a purpose, they would have gotten beat by 50. But they stayed with it and all of a sudden, they cut it down to 20. Then they cut it down to 10. And then they had Chicago playing not to lose, and [the Kings] were the ones playing with confidence.''

Fine. That's a team approach. But what about individuals? Some players only get off the bench when a game is out of hand. Others get more opportunities, bumping up in the relative pecking order. If the seventh guy in your rotation is on the court with the eighth, ninth and 10th guys, he might feel like -- and try to play like -- a star.

A garbage-time star, that is.

"There are a lot of guys who will say, 'Aw, we're down 15 or 20,' and they'll hoist up some shots to try to get theirs,'' Minnesota forward Kevin Love said. "Some guys -- I take pride in this too -- will try to get an offensive rebound, play defense, get defensive rebounds, take the right shots, hit the right guy ... When you see a guy who's not taking the right shot, it's humorous sometimes. At the same time, it's not funny.''

We all have seen it. A scrub gets some run late in a game and decides to post some numbers or, to put it more kindly, plays harder than the other nine fellows on the floor. Or it's a main guy getting a little stats-crazy, gunning for a team or personal record or trying to finish out a triple-double. Maybe it's Denver wing J.R. Smith, still launching 3-pointers late in a 20-point victory over Atlanta because he already had 10 and wanted more. Maybe it's Toronto's Pops Mensah-Bonsu doing this for no good reason against Orlando.

Paul Swanson, the statistics maven for the Timberwolves, used some nifty new software last week to pull together what he termed the "2009-10 NBA Garbage All-Stars.'' Not to be confused with these guys, it filtered every player in the league for how he performs late in games when his team is leading or trailing by 16 points or more. (That's not a perfect definition of "garbage time,'' but it will do for this purpose.)

His findings? In raw points, through games of Christmas Day, the leaders (Kobe Bryant 130, Carmelo Anthony 109) were not surprising; those guys are volume scorers who log big minutes regardless of the scoreboard. But on a points-per-100-possessions basis, you'll see names such as Eddie House, Kris Humphries, Alando Tucker and Willie Green cracking the top 15. Way up there with Dirk Nowitzki, Richard Jefferson and Chris Paul and ahead of Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce.

For the deep reserves, garbage time is their time, maybe the only chance they get to do what they do. But it's a fine line between playing for the box score and playing for your next opportunity -- which, if you handle garbage time properly, might come earlier in a closer game.

"There's a saying that I've always used: Use your minutes,'' Saunders said. Seems only fair, since fans often use garbage minutes to beat traffic home, while reporters use them to bang out and file their stories ahead of deadline.

"The time that you're on the floor,'' Saunders continued, "you can use those minutes to be productive and show that you know how to play within a system, or you can go out there and play without a purpose and show that you're not ready to step up to the prime-time level where you'd get major minutes. It's tough for young players because sometimes they don't understand that.''

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years.

You can e-mail him
here. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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