PORTLAND, Ore. — Kris Humphries didn’t want to end his night on roller skates, yet there he was, one-on-one with Stephen Curry, who had the ball in his hands and full control of the Celtics’ fate.
The Warriors’ final play in their 99-97 win over the Celtics on Friday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., had so many layers. Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached a masterful game, including fouling with the Celtics trailing by 1 point and 20.2 seconds left, despite there being a four-second difference between the shot clock and game clock.
Stevens called on Jeff Green to foul Harrison Barnes, and he missed one of two free throws, allowing Green to tie the game with a runner with 11.6 left.
The Warriors called a 20-second timeout and then the chess match began between Stevens and Golden State coach Mark Jackson, who decided to do what he usually does in these late-game situations — run a pick and roll between Curry and David Lee and dare the Celtics to make a choice.
Stevens was faced with a couple of key decisions. Either he could trap the 6-foot-3-inch Curry and force the game’s best outside shooter to find a streaking Lee with Humphries and Avery Bradley in his face, or he could have used Green or even Brandon Bass, a more nimble player than Humphries, on Lee, so that player would have a better shot to defend Curry one-on-one.
Instead, Lee picked Bradley cleanly and Humphries was sliding the entire time, left to defend Curry, who drained a 23-footer for the winning points. That left Stevens to wonder how differently he should have defended the play.
There was a sense of regret for Stevens, who is learning these NBA lessons on the fly. The Dallas Mavericks, a team experienced at playing the Warriors in tight games over the years, used Shawn Marion to defend Lee, so he could have a better opportunity to offer resistance to Curry. Humphries really didn’t have a chance, and it cost the Celtics a chance at sending the game into overtime.
So many positives came from Friday’s loss, including a useful lesson learned by Stevens about late-game coaching.
“Really tough, really tough,” Stevens said. “I thought Hump did as good of a job as you could and if you watch the film, switching may not be the best option for the simple fact that David Lee is probably going to get the rebound if [Curry] missed, and my biggest concern was keeping him in front, challenging as well as we possibly could and then the second shot [off the rebound] usually kills you in that situation. But he made it. Good shot.”
Stevens allowed Golden State’s best player to win the game, which is an understandable move considering the matchup issues. Lee has always been a difficult cover for the Celtics because of his versatility and size and Humphries was best qualified to defend him.
A masterful night ended sourly for Humphries, who turned in perhaps his best game as a Celtics and a demo tape for interested teams come February with 16 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocked shots, and 2 steals. The Celtics are a better team with him in the lineup, and those faithful who believe the organization is truly tanking are mistaken because the presence of Humphries only improves the team.
He sat for a majority of the first month, merely an expiring contract the Celtics had to accept to facilitate their big trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Stevens called upon him in spot duty, like Red Sox manager John Farrell would a long reliever. His playing time was inconsistent but Humphries produced.
One thing he has proven during his stint with the Celtics is that he will be a capable and valuable player for a playoff-contending team, and perhaps a candidate for a lucrative multiyear deal in the summer.
Would the Celtics be interested? Probably more now than they were when they acquired him. The organization is becoming more and more invested in Jared Sullinger, and on Friday he turned the corner on his troubles and turned in an impressive 21-point, 11-rebound performance. Humphries, who turns 29 next month, could become a viable option off the bench for the Celtics and perhaps a center-type who could bridge the gap to the next era.
It wouldn’t be for the $12 million per season he is earning now, but Humphries has proven a true professional who would be worthy of sticking around beyond the trade deadline.
“It’s different,” he said of being in the starting lineup. “You’ve got to be ready to go right away. You come out aggressive, you set the tone of the game. The starters are important for a team, but it’s about trying to get a win.”
Humphries is playing about the same minutes per game as he did last season with the Brooklyn Nets and he is averaging more points, shooting a better percentage from the field, and averaging twice the blocked shots than that tumultuous season with the Nets.
He stands out in the Celtics’ locker room. He’s GQ in a hip-hop world, but he’s carried enough professionalism to blend in with his teammates and also contribute to a team that made it clear he is expendable. He may not be expendable for much longer because right now, Kris Humphries is one of the Celtics’ most valuable players.