With just a few days left in the NBA's regular season, we're seeing more and more teams sit down some of their more recognizable players, whether due to legitimate injury or, in the case of playoff teams with their seeding and prospects all but sewn up, just to get their stars a little bit of rest before the beginning of the postseason. But when those big names sit, someone's got to take their place — after all, we can't just simulate the games and start the playoffs early. (Yet. Get on it, Sloan Conference.)
Given the chance to move from the end of their teams' benches up to the front of their coaches' rotations, a handful of usual bit-parters had unusually big nights on Monday. But who had the biggest/most surprising impact? Let's run 'em down in reverse order, and hear your opinions in the comments.
5. Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
With starting point guard Tony Parker getting a Do Not Play-Coach's Decision — perhaps due to the lingering effects of his "concerning" shin injury, perhaps due to the fact that he was, in coach Gregg Popovich's words, "awful" in a five-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday — and Manu Ginobili still sidelined by a strained hamstring, the Spurs went to a lead-guard-by-committee, with Cory Joseph starting and the trio of Nando De Colo, Gary Neal and Mills picking up the slack off the bench ... and Mills came through with a season-high 23 points on 9 for 16 shooting, including a 5-for-8 mark from 3-point land, to go with two assists and two steals in 22 1/2 minutes (lots of twos) in the Spurs' 116-106 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
I was tempted to give it to Neal, who went for 25 points, five assists and four rebounds, but he's a much bigger part of the Spurs' regular rotation than Mills is, and he also got this bit of evil done to him by Golden State star Stephen Curry:
... so the honor goes to the man of 1,000 towel waves. Breaking out a Slapper in your honor, Patty.
4. James White, New York Knicks
The man called "Flight" — best-known by NBA fans for promising the moon in the run-up to the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend, then coming up juuuuuuuust a bit short of meeting expectations — had played a grand total of 36 minutes in his previous 11 appearances over the past three weeks. He surpassed that on Monday alone, as the Knicks traveled south to take on the Charlotte Bobcats without Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Solomon Jones, who started at center for New York on Sunday and was cut on Monday.
Even more than that, two players the Knicks did bring and who did dress — starting point guard Raymond Felton and long-injured center Marcus Camby — didn't see action, meaning the Knicks ran seven deep on Monday ... and one of those seven, Rasheed Wallace, played just three minutes and 50 seconds of basketball before leaving the court with a sore right foot in his first action since early December. As a result, White played 43 minutes for the wafer-thin New York J.V., scoring 15 points (the most he'd scored in nearly six years) on 5 for 9 shooting, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing six assists in New York's 106-95 loss to the lowly Bobcats.
Considering the Knicks have already locked up the East's No. 2 seed and really have nothing to play for except continued health heading into this weekend's opening-round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics, White could get another shot to go long when the Knicks welcome the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday ... although Woodson did reportedly indicate Monday that most of his regulars would see at least some time in the season finale. If that means White's minutes return to their usual curtailed status, at least he got one more chance to fly.
3. Daniel Orton, Oklahoma City Thunder
Hey, remember Daniel Orton? No? Well, that's understandable — after being drafted 29th overall in the 2010 NBA draft by the Orlando Magic, the super-raw former University of Kentucky center went down to the D-League and quickly suffered a season-ending knee injury, rehabbing just in time to get a brief cup of coffee with the Magic last spring ... after which he was waived, signed by the Oklahoma City Thunder, waived by OKC and re-signed after the James Harden trade, spending most of this season shuttling between the big club and the D-League.
Over two NBA seasons, Orton has made 28 appearances and played 270 total minutes, including 83 with the Thunder this year; 36 of those have come in the Thunder's last two games, including 21 1/2 in Monday's No.-1-seed-clinching win over the Sacramento Kings. The 22-year-old big man made the most of his time spelling Hasheem Thabeet, scoring 10 points on 4 for 6 shooting, grabbing seven rebounds (five on the offensive glass) and notching three steals against the lowly Kings. I'm not sure this will make you any more likely to remember him, but considering the outing accounted for 35.7 percent of his total scoring output, 30.4 percent of his overall rebounds and 100 percent of his thefts on the season, it's still a pretty nice night for the young big man.
2. Tornike Shengelia, Brooklyn Nets
With Brooklyn sporting a "hilarious" injury report without four starters for Monday's matchup with the Washington Wizards, Shengelia — a little-used, 6-foot-9-inch forward from Georgia (no, the other Georgia) — got the call to back up the formidable Andray Blatche/Kris Humphries/Gerald Wallace frontcourt. And, against the Wizards' stout defensive unit, the second-round pick held his own.
Shengelia scored a career-high 11 points and grabbing a career-high 11 rebounds — his first career double-double, natch — to go with a steal and a block in 25 1/2 minutes (more than double his previous high in playing time, accounting for nearly 38 percent of his minutes on the season) in Brooklyn's 106-101 home win over the Wiz. Not only that, but in postgame interviews, Shengelia really brought some in-depth insight, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
1. Norris Cole, Miami Heat
This is perhaps a bit unfair — after all, Cole has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game for the Heat in each of his two NBA seasons — but still, we must pay him respect for what he did in playing a game-high 42:37 on a night without LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem. Not only did Cole lead Miami to a 96-95 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and not only did he come within one assist of his first career triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, one steal, one block) — he also sealed the victory with this excellent bit of on-ball defense on All-Star opposing number Kyrie Irving, who was chosen 27 spots before Cole in the 2011 draft:
Pretty cool stuff, young Mr. Cole. On a night largely owned by little-used end-of-the-benchers, you, sir, stood above the rest. (The flat-top might have had something to do with that.)