Five minutes. That is how long Mike James figured he might play Saturday night for the Nets in their second-round series opener against the Bucks.
He might get less than that. He might get no run at all. After all, he is a backup and he moved into the postseason on the outside looking in, when it came to inclusion in the rotation. He played a total of 10 minutes in the five-game series against the Celtics.
All that changed for James, a 30-year old journeyman, when James Harden lasted only 43 seconds before aggravating a right hamstring issue that caused him to miss 21 games down the stretch of the regular season. James was needed, and he responded, logging 30 minutes and scoring 12 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists in the Nets’ 115-107 victory.
From no time to the big time, just like that.
“Honestly I didn’t even see him really get hurt,’’ James said Sunday after practice. “I just saw him walking off the court and thought it was a timeout, because I think I was talking … I really wasn’t paying attention to the game at that moment. I think I was grabbing water, getting the normal stuff that I get right at the beginning of the game.
“So I saw him walking off the court and then he just kept walking, so I didn’t really understand what happened, and then they said that James tweaked his hammy again or something, so they were like, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to be ready.’ So it kind of changed my mentality from what I thought was going to happen, I thought maybe I play five minutes at the most, or maybe I don’t play at all, so yeah, got to stay in the right mental capacity and stay locked into the game, really.’’
Staying in the right mental capacity was an immense challenge for James, a 6-foot-1 guard when went undrafted and, ever since 2012, has lived a nomadic basketball life. His résumé looks like some teenager’s gap-year dream touring scenario, playing professionally in Croatia, Israel, Italy, Greece and Spain. He got 32 games in the NBA with the Suns and four games with the Pelicans during the 2017-18 season. He headed back to Greece, then Italy, and landed in Moscow the past two years. The Nets on April 23 signed him to the first of two 10-day contracts and he played in 13 games during the regular season.
“To be honest, playing basketball really isn’t that tough,’’ James said. “Just going out there and just being able to try to contribute and kind of put all your chips on the table isn’t really the tough part, to be honest. It’s more the downtime when I wasn’t really playing and just trying to stay ready and stay mentally focused. It’s just a different situation than I’m used to. That part was tougher than actually playing, I think, for me.’’
Losing Harden was a shock to the Nets, but James was not a bit hesitant as he hit the court. He made five of his 11 shots from the floor and did not commit a turnover, running the break with fearlessness. The Nets outscored the Bucks by 12 points with James in the game.
“It’s just a level of professionalism, knowing to stay ready whenever your number is called,’’ sharpshooter Joe Harris said.
With a day to adjust, coach Steve Nash might not call on James for another 30 minutes Monday night in Game 2, although he also might not be able to keep Irving on the floor for 45 minutes, as he did in the opener. The Nets need James now, though.
“Obviously James has something going on,’’ James said. “So I’m basically the other point guard besides Kyrie so I’ve got to be ready to play at least a little bit. Who knows if it’s gonna be 30 minutes again but I’ve got to be ready to go out there and lead the team in some capacity, and be ready to contribute.’’