With just under five minutes to go, Kris Humphries took a seat at the far end of the Celtics bench, accompanied by a roaring ovation from the TD Garden crowd.
The first-year Celtic had just put forward his best performance in green, scoring 18 points in 24 minutes, both season highs, as Boston defeated the Denver Nuggets, 106-98, Friday night.
Humphries helped the Celtics fend off the Nuggets’ ferocious comeback bid in the third quarter and scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half.
He put an emphatic stamp on Boston’s electric first half when he slammed home a dunk despite a hard foul, and then pinned Jordan Hamilton’s layup against the glass as the buzzer sounded in the second quarter.
But more importantly, it was a breakthrough performance for a player that has experienced a significant decline in minutes while fighting to prove his worth before his contract expires at the end of the season.
On Friday, Humphries delivered when the Celtics needed it most — a testament to the extra work he’s put in at practice to keep in game shape. But after the win, he quickly deflected the attention toward his team, which won its second straight game and sits atop the Atlantic Division with a 9-12 record.
“I don’t like to focus on me and where I’m at,” Humphries said. “We’re at the top of the division, so that’s what’s important, whether my role is no minutes, five minutes, 20 minutes, or more.
“I have to contribute and it’s not about me, so I don’t really want to answer that question.”
Humphries entered Friday averaging 13.5 minutes per game. He averaged 18.3 last season with Brooklyn, and 34.9 the year before with the Nets.
But with rookie forward Kelly Olynyk missing the last seven games with a sprained ankle, Humphries has provided valuable minutes in his absence, and that’s exactly what he delivered in the third quarter against Denver.
The Celtics were fading fast, their 64-44 lead evaporating as the Nuggets opened the third quarter with a 20-4 run.
The energy from the Celtics’ explosive first half, in which they shot a smooth 56.8 percent from the field, was all but depleted.
But with 3:56 to play in the third quarter and the Celtics clinging to a 74-71 lead, Humphries delivered three straight baskets that stretched the advantage to 80-73.
As the third quarter came to a close, Humphries banked in a hook shot to give the Celtics an 87-77 lead.
“In the second half, it was our bench that got us back out to a lead,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And Kris was a big part of that. Kris is a very, very reliable mid-range jump shooter, and he continues to make them for us.”
The highlight of Humphries’s night was the dunk at the end of the first half, which ended with him falling hard to the ground.
“I thought the great play was, I think he got the run-out at the end of the first half, where he really sprinted down the sideline to make himself available for Jordan [Crawford] and finish that thing. And he got knocked down and was a little dinged up, but good enough to keep playing,” Stevens said.
Humphries, who hit the resulting free throw, said he was grateful he was not injured on the play.
“Thank God nothing tore in my knees,” Humphries said. “I feel like both my knees were in weird positions. I’ll probably be a little stiff tomorrow.”
The Celtics now travel to New York for games against the Knicks and Nets, and Stevens said Olynyk would be out again Sunday.
For Humphries, that means another shot to prove himself and his worth to the Celtics.
“It’s nice to play and just be out there and helping the team,” Humphries said. “That’s what we all strive for. We all prepare to play 30-35 minutes. Unfortunately, some guys don’t get that look. But you have to be ready.”