For the NBA’s bench players, playing time is like oxygen.
That naturally holds true for any team’s reserves, but for the Lakers’ bench in particular – sitting behind the league’s most talented starting lineup – PT is like the water’s surface to a diver scrambling upwards with an empty tank.
It’s a bit different for each player: Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown always want more minutes, but at least they can expect relatively consistent burn in their defined roles; Luke Walton’s eager to get into the rotation after battling back issues all season; Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga work hard in practice daily to stay ready for spot duty behind L.A.’s three star bigs; Adam Morrison covets the chance to show he can still play.
And boy, does Sasha Vujacic want to be on the floor.
After falling almost completely out of Phil Jackson’s rotation this season after a diminished role in post-Machine 2008-09, Vujacic certainly wasn’t expecting to start for just the 12th time in his career and first time since 2006-07 on Friday night in Denver.
But when Kobe Bryant decided not to play in order to rest his body (knee, ankle, finger, etc.), Jackson called on the Slovenian, and played him for 25 minutes and 39 seconds, by far the most run Vujacic had received all season and only the third time he’d played at least 20 minutes.
While the 6-7 guard didn’t have the kind of game he’d hoped for from a shooting standpoint – he made only 3-of-12 attempts from the field (2-of-7 from three) – just being on the floor for an extended run was for Vujacic like opening a packet of Lucky Charms featuring only marshmallows.
“Today was an important game for me to get a feel for things,” said Vujacic, who added three boards and an assist. “I was a little too passive (to start), but it was great to be out there for a long time.”
Understandably, getting into an individual rhythm heading into the playoffs isn’t easy for someone who’d played a total of 96 minutes since the All-Star break (that’s less than three games for Bryant), even if finding a way to contribute regardless of how limited the role is incumbent upon every pro player.
“I just want to be able to help the team,” said Sasha. “Tonight I got a feel for the game. The (missed) shots I’m not worried about, it’s just getting in the flow. I’m mad we lost, but it’s a great opportunity for guys to get it going.”
Since Vujacic hadn’t been playing much of late anyway, his 26 minutes in Bryant’s place didn’t necessarily increase the burn for the rest of the bench in his stead. Still, Brown scored 12 points with a block in his nearly 27 minutes, Farmar scored seven points with three boards, Powell managed four points with five boards in 21 minutes and Mbenga a basket and four rebounds in only 4:29. In sum, 25 points and 13 boards from the bench wasn’t bad.
It was Brown, not Vujacic, who started the second half. The unit featuring the high-flier and the rest of the starters played so well that Jackson didn’t make a substitution in the quarter, as L.A. went on a 27-11 run after Denver scored the first five points to turn a 10-point halftime deficit into a 1-point lead into the fourth. Vujacic then returned with Farmar and Powell, and promptly sank two 3-pointers in a 2-minute span, the second after he’d grabbed an offensive rebound and then spotted up in the corner before catching Powell’s nice skip pass.
Vujacic is hoping, and planning, to bring some of that to the Lakers in Minnesota on Friday night, a game in which Bryant is not expected to play.
“Of course I’d love to play more minutes again,” Vujacic said. “I’ve been eager for a long time. I just want to carry on. Today wasn’t a great shooting night, but I’m not worried about my shots. Tomorrow I want to do different things, mix it up, but keep going and keep it consistent up to the playoffs.”
Getting Kobe well-rested for those playoffs exists in its own vacuum, surely, but if Vujacic can use even a brief absence from No. 24 to find a semblance of rhythm, the Lakers are the beneficiary.
Sure enough, just a bit of oxygen can go a long way for a bench player in the NBA.