BOSTON – Kris Humphries’ teammates wouldn’t let him get a clean sentence out after the game. "Yo, you need a towel Hump?" Jared Sullinger yelled as Humphries’ forehead beaded in sweat under the focus of the biggest media scrum he has faced in Boston this season.
"Yo Hump, way to play today! Way to play today Hump! You the man," Jeff Green shouted with a smirk across his face.
The jokes kept coming, but the man they call "Hump" kept calmly and unflinchingly answering questions with a smile. He is a professional and he does his job.
On a night when Sullinger struggled to take on the role of the effective post scorer, Humphries exceeded the misguidedly low expectations the public set for him early in the season.
"Kris played well. That shows a big sign about our team," Sullinger said. "That somebody is not playing well, particularly myself, and you got people like Kris Humphries to step and take charge."
He doesn’t do anything phenomenal, he is just steady, cognizant and diligent.
"[Humphries] played great all night," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He’s done a good job for us, and again, I think that speaks to his professionalism too because this hasn’t been always easy for him. But he’s always been a pro about everything."
That sentiment was epitomized by his biggest play of the game, a fastbreak dunk at the end of the first half. When Brandon Bass grabbed a Ty Lawson miss on a tough floater, Humphries, who had lost rebounding position to Kenneth Faried, immediately turned around and went into a dead sprint down the right wing.
Bass threw a good outlet pass to an advancing Jordan Crawford, who immediately hit the gas on a two-on-one break against Randy Foye. Crawford dropped an early lead pass to Humphries, who flew by Foye in midair and threw it down with a hard foul.
Humphries landed on the deck with a strong grimace on his face. He looked out to the stands, made sure his knees were still attached, and simply said, "I’m ok." He then promptly went 6-for-7 from the field for the rest of the game.
"Thank God nothing tore in my knees," he said after the game. "I feel like both my knees were in weird positions. It was really weird. Thank God I'm all right. I'll probably be a little stiff tomorrow."
It’s the type of play that comes from Humphries’ continued focus on being ready for his opportunity to get on the floor. "You know you have to be in shape and I have been conditioning," Humphries said. "My rookie, Phil Pressey, ran six suicides with me yesterday. So, he gets some credit for getting me in shape."
But there were plenty of days in November when racing (and losing, as Pressey told CLNS) was as much competition as he would face that day. With Kelly Olynyk likely to return next week from an ankle sprain and Vitor Faverani’s fluctuating spot in the rotation, Humphries is making the most of his opportunity to earn minutes. But don’t ask him about that.
"We’re winning and stuff," he said. "I don’t want to focus on me and where I’m at. 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, you’ve got to contribute. It’s not about myself so I don’t want to answer that question."
Such deflection of personal focus flies in the face of a Celtics fan base that lamented the acquisition of Humphries, identifying him with his brief brawl with Rajon Rondo and his short-lived career as a Real Househusband of NBCUniversal.
But that overshadows a reputation on the court for being a bruising rebounder who is an effective pick-and-pop big man. While he was a castaway during a bizarre coaching breakdown and an even more bizarre public divorce last season, Humphries is experiencing a fresh start out of the spotlight in Boston. He’s also enjoying a return to his previous form.
In the eight games since Olynyk sprained his ankle in the loss to the Pacers, Humphries is averaging 18 points per 36 minutes and 11.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. That is just ahead of his averages in his career year of ’11-’12 of 13.8 points and 11 rebounds per game in 35 minutes per game.
It starts on the offensive glass, but Humphries’ midrange game is the key to his success. That is due to the fact that he gets absurdly open looks from 15-feet and out. Humphries earns this space, but sometimes it is given to him. He does not flinch at an open look when his – often clueless – defender left him Friday night. But a lot of his looks come from off-ball movement and court awareness.
He is a very good pick setter. Part of being effective at setting screens is knowing when not to set them. On Humphries’ first dunk of the night, late in the first quarter, it was his reading of the defender’s awareness of the screen and bailing on that screen that got him an open layup.
Crawford brought the ball across the top of the key on a Bass pick and Humphries lined up on the elbow to set the tail end of a staggered screen. But Crawford wasn’t ready for Bass’ screen – primarily because of his lackadaisical body language that reduces his acceleration off the dribble, but does make him difficult to read for defenders – and by the time he crossed Bass, his defender was back in position.
Humphries recognized that the same situation was going to repeat itself, but this time the consequence would be Crawford getting trapped in the corner and rendering the play dead. So right before Crawford’s man, Nate Robinson, would meet the screen, Humphries made a rim run while his defender, Timofey Mozgov, was moving up to hedge the screen on the three-point line.
Since the Nuggets’ defense doesn’t have effective backside support from J.J. Hickson, Hump had a free roll to the hoop. Crawford did what J Craw does and threw a perfect pass that makes us question our perceptions of reality for the past four years.
Had Humphries tried to stay still to set the pick or even move further away from the rim to force the pick like many young big men do, the defense would have caught up to the play and contained it. But he has been around long enough to know that the advantage is not in stopping the ball defender, but in beating the help and recovery.
He also reads the writing on the wall and knows that he has a limited window to showcase himself to the league. The NBA’s annual trading season kicks off on December 15, when most of this summer’s failed new signings are eligible to be traded. While Humphries hasn’t provided an inkling of discord with the program in Boston, he is a valuable trade asset and is making himself attractive to a contender that needs a short-term interior presence and spacing.
For now, he’ll likely welcome the competition for minutes. At least Sullinger bowed out Friday. "I was kinda shocked that [Stevens] put me back in the game," Sullinger said. "Honestly, I wanted Hump to stay in there. Because he is playing great."
Hence, the conundrum for Stevens, who has more players than rotations to disseminate to his big men. When asked about whether it will be hard to remove Humphries from the rotation when Olynyk returns, Stevens said, "I’d say the answer to that is ‘yes.’ I don’t know how that’s all going to work itself out, but I have a lot of faith in Kris, I have a lot of faith in Kelly, I’ve got a lot of faith in all five bigs.
"We talked about that before, but the bottom line is I guess when you look across the league it seems like every team we play has one of their bigs out. So to have five of them that all really, really compliment each other, that gives you the flexibility of four being available on a given night, that’s pretty good. But when we have all five available, I don’t know how that’s going to work itself out."
With Faverani struggling for consistency and Sullinger holding his own against the league’s best centers, it is plausible for Olynyk and Humphries to play together. Especially considering Humphries’ beef on the boards and revived midrange shot, he is playing himself into a position where the coach cannot afford to not play him.
But even if he loses his minutes again to the reality of the scenario he has been thrust into, Hump won’t stop preparing for the next opportunity. Even if that opportunity is to beat Phil Pressey in wind sprints.