Before Wednesday night, the last time Sasha Vujacic played more than 20 minutes in a game was last year. Seriously.
Vujacic got 22 minutes on Dec. 30 in a loss at New Orleans when starting shooting guard Courtney Lee was out with a sprained ankle. Since then Vujacic played a grand total of 26 minutes in the next 18 games.
But when the Knicks needed a boost against the Brooklyn Nets, it was Vujacic who stepped up in record-setting fashion. He scored 12 points including two four-point plays in the Knicks’ 95-90 come-from-behind win at Barclays Center.
It’s the first time in the 70-year history of the franchise that a player has posted two four-point plays in one game.
“For someone that has been out of the rotation since the beginning of the season and just working and waiting for the opportunity it’s huge,’’ Vujacic said. “It made me feel like I’m breathing again; like I’m alive. It’s what I live for. I live for the game and competing; winning and just being out there.’’
Vujacic wasted little time making an impact. He entered the game in the second quarter with the Knicks trailing 29-19. He drained a three and was fouled by Bojan Bogdanovic. Vujacic converted the free throw and the Knicks were back in the contest at 35-33.
That four-point play was huge. However, it wasn’t surprising to his teammates and the Knicks’ coaching staff.
Before almost every game, Vujacic jogs into the locker room with sweat pouring off his body. He takes hundreds of shots, in addition to the work he does in practice.
“We tell the guys, that’s a great lesson, a veteran guy who may not play for a lot of games but we might need a night where you have to get in there and play and you have to be ready,’’ coach Jeff Hornacek said of Vujacic. “And he was.’’
There is a lot the Knicks can learn from Vujacic. He is the only player on the roster to have won an NBA championship. He has two rings from his days with the Lakers.
At the age of 32, Vujacic is the oldest player on the Knicks’ roster. Yet he works with the intensity of a free agent rookie trying to make the team. That hasn’t been lost on the team’s, well, rookie free agent.
“As a rookie, seeing him so focused every day and in tune with what we’re doing, the hard work, paying attention to every detail, it’s something you have to respect,’’ said Ron Baker. “The last couple of weeks he hadn’t played much. But that work paid off when he got the call.’’
Vujacic, who was fouled by Bogdanovic on his first four-pointer, drained another three and was fouled by Joe Harris with nine minutes left in the game. Vujacic converted his second, four-point play, bringing the Knicks to within, 76-74. His jumper less than a minute later tied the score at 76-76 and then Knicks pulled away.
Before Vujacic made a basket against the Nets, he had made his presence felt. He got into some first-rate chirping with Nets rookie Caris LeVert. At the end of the game, Vujacic committed a hard foul on his European rival, Bogdanovic. Vujacic’s edgy play isn’t lost on his teammates.
“Sasha’s actually one of my favorite teammates just off the fact that he has that chip and he brings a lot of energy,’’ guard Brandon Jennings said.
“And he’s always ready to play.’’
That has been the tough part, even for a veteran such as Vujacic. He’s only averaged 20 or more minutes of playing time per game once in his nine seasons.
The endless hours of shooting have helped him keep his body and mind ready to play. He said when he’s not in the game, he strives to be the best presence on the bench. In practice, he pushes the starters as if it was a game.
The rewards are few and far between. Derrick Rose (sprained left ankle) is hoping to play on Saturday when the Knicks host LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (MSG Network will have postgame reaction and analysis immediately following the game).
Rose has been listed as questionable after being limited in practice on Friday. Hornacek doesn’t think Rose will be ready to go, but that doesn’t guarantee Vujacic minutes.
“It’s tough when you’re not in the rotation and the coaching staff doesn’t really count on you and puts you on the side you’ve got to find motivation to get yourself going,’’ Vujacic said. “Never quit. Never give up. Thank God it’s a long season and the opportunity will come along the way.’’
“It’s different if you’re in the constant rotation and you know when you’re going to get in or what’s going to happen. Like this, you just have to stay ready and sometimes you don’t play for a while. You have to find a rhythm. It’s not easy.’’
Vujacic made it look easy.