The excitement in the air grew. Laker fans stomped their feet. And as they always do when the game’s on the line, the 18,997 at Staples Center continuously yelled “M-V-P, M-V-P.”
Kobe Bryant making a surprise return after spending the past seven months healing his left Achilles tendon? Hardly. Instead, it was second-year backup center Robert Sacre earning praise for providing something far more entertaining than just dancing on the bench.
In what epitomized the Lakers reserves’ scrappiness in nearly overcoming two double-digit deficits in the team’s 114-108 loss Sunday to the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacre posted career highs in points (12) and rebounds (seven) in just his sixth game this season.
“I’ve been waiting for my time and waiting to seize the moment,” Sacre said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t get the win tonight. But that’s what this team is all about. You never know who will come out and produce. That’s the whole essence of this team. We’re all about one another. We want each other to succeed.”
No one captures that attitude more than Sacre.
The Lakers selected him as the 60th pick in the 2012 NBA draft, and his 32 game appearances last season happened only when Dwight Howard was injured or the Lakers nursed either double-digit deficits or leads. But Sacre avoided becoming Mr. Irrelevant. Instead, he became a locker room favorite both for his happy go-lucky attitude and work ethic.
“I couldn’t be happier for a kid like him,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “This guy is always up. Sometimes he gets the short end of the stick because he’s such a good guy. You know he’ll play 30 seconds or whatever. At a certain point, you have to say, you know what? He needs to play.”
D’Antoni reached that point last week when he wanted to find someone to help lower minutes for Jordan Hill, who has crashed and burned sice quickly ascending into the starting lineup partly because of fatigue. But D’Antoni said he felt reluctant inserting center Chris Kaman after overcoming a sore back because providing garbage minutes could be considered both disrespectful to a veteran and counterproductive toward someone trying to establish a rhythm. Instead, Sacre appeared for eight minutes in the Lakers’ 99-94 win Wednesday over the Brooklyn Nets, and D’Antoni plans to keep him at the backup center spot moving forward.
“I just knew I needed to produce and play hard,” Sacre said. “My time was going to come. I needed to stay focused and bring whatever energy and effort I can bring toward this team.”
That showed when Sacre provided nearly everything imaginable against Portland.
He banked in a straightaway 18-footer. Sacre followed that up with a right hook shot. He threw down a few dunks. Sacre made a pair of free throws to cut Portland’s lead to 97-93 with 4:58 remaining. He followed that up with a six-foot jumper to bring the Lakers within one point, trailing 101-100 at the 3:14 mark.
Sacre played so well that he even replaced Pau Gasol in the fourth quarter to lead the Lakers toward a near comeback.
“Robert was playing really well. I’m always happy for any teammate who plays well, especially a guy who doesn’t get many minutes,” said Gasol, who posted only six points on 3 of 15 shooting. “It was definitely his best professional game of his career. I’m very happy he made a big impact on the game and had a lot of big plays on both ends of the floor.”
That happened namely because Sacre spent most of his summer playing for the Lakers’ Vegas Summer league team, improving his raw post moves and attending all of the team’s voluntary workouts.
“Eventually all the work will pay off,” Sacre said. “I have to stay focused within my game. I knew my time would come.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com