After all, the 32-year-old guard in his 10th NBA season had appeared in just three of 17 possible January games for only 27 combined minutes and was growing “frustrated” he couldn’t help his team compete to win games.
“From the beginning of the season, I wasn’t in the rotation and being in and out, it’s not the easiest thing to stay positive about always,” Vujacic told reporters. “You’ve gotta constantly be in front of (the coaches) showing them that you’re here. ... It’s not the easiest thing to do, especially when you’re losing. When you know you can help, it hurts the most. “
If Hornacek forgot he had an NBA champion on his bench, he was reminded on Wednesday.
Vujacic scored 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting, giving New York a much needed spark off the bench to jolt his team to a 95-90 road win over Brooklyn. His heroics featured two four-point plays as part of a second unit (plus Kristaps Porzingis) that outscored the Nets 31-21 in the fourth quarter.
“I just think we scrapped and made sure we tried to get stops, try to fly around the floor,” said reserve wing Justin Holiday. The Knicks outscored the Nets by 26 points in Holiday’s 28 minutes on the floor. “Obviously having Sasha come in there, a lot of energy, it helped us a lot.”
The Knicks were on the verge of dropping their fourth of five games before the reserves saved the day. Carmelo Anthony was cold, scoring 15 points on 6-for-22 shooting. Joakim Noah grabbed seven rebounds in 13 minutes, but New York was outscored by seven with him on the floor. But Hornacek opted not to turn back to his nine-time All-Star after the 3:19 mark of the third quarter.
“They just had the energy,” Hornacek told reporters after the game. “That four overtime game looked like it got us in Washington. Our main guys didn’t have a ton of energy.”
Instead, the Knicks coach turned to Willy Hernangomez, who posted 16 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and a block off the bench. New York outscored Brooklyn by 26 with backup wing Justin Holiday on the floor. And Brandon Jennings played 43 with the injured Derrick Rose (sprained ankle), anchoring the second unit on both ends with 10 assists and five steals in spite of a 1-for-11 shooting night.
Willy Hernangomez has 16 PTS and 16 REB.— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) February 2, 2017
Since Dec., he is averaging 12.2 points & 11.7 rebounds when he plays 20 or more minutes #Knicks
Kristaps Porzingis, the lone starter on the floor during the fourth quarter push, finished with 19 points (7-for-15 shooting), 12 rebounds and two blocks, rebounding from a stomach virus that kept him out of the Wizards game.
Without Anthony on the floor, the Rookie of the Year runner-up said he just wanted to play his type of basketball.
“Keep moving the ball and that way we can get better looks. Justin hit a big three over in the corner. We’re just all movement,” Porzingis said. “Willy got big rebounds and big buckets, and we were just playing. I wasn’t trying to go one-on-one and get a bucket. I was trying to just play and get something from that.”
Added Vujacic: “(The bench unit) in the fourth quarter (was) willing to play together, willing to cover for each other, especially on defense. And once you see that and recognize that, everything just gives you a flow of how to win the game, and it was great.”
New York (22-29) still has a lot of ground to make up to get back to .500 but is only 1.5 games behind Charlotte for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. If you ask Vujacic, the only NBA champion on the roster, the team needs to rely on its bench more often.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game to watch, probably, but we out-hustled them. We came out and we fought,” he said. “We really fought really hard. We fought for what is across our chest, and I think people recognize that,. And they gave us more minutes in the fourth quarter, and that was great to see.”