Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland
March 1, 2018
Sixers 105, Cavs 97
17 seconds remaining
Thank you for coming, drive home safely.
As the stands inside "The Q" emptied out and viewers changed the channel, a new type of game ensued. It's familiar within the NBA fraternity, but it's invisible for most of the public.
That game is "garbage time," or the remaining time on the clock when the outcome of a game has been decided.
It's a time that delicately balances professionalism with competitiveness. A time that is meaningless to most but presents significant opportunity and consequence to others. A time with old-school roots but faulty and somewhat contradictory logic.
Seconds after Cavs swingman Rodney Hood sailed in for an uncontested dunk, the Sixers sped through a light full-court press before breaking the NBA's unwritten sportsmanship rule.
Forward Dario Saric went in for a casual one-handed dunk with 12.2 seconds left in the game. Cleveland guard Jordan Clarkson took exception and threw the ball at Saric's back, which earned him an ejection. A small scuffle broke out, with Clarkson's teammates, Hood and LeBron James, chastising a surprised Saric for the faux pas.
"Uh, basketball, that's it," Clarkson told reporters after the game. "Part of the game. If anybody say different, that they wouldn't have did that, that they'd have did something different or anything else, they lying. Especially if it was at that [point] of the game."
Saric should have known better, Clarkson implied.
"They know what's up. That's it."
Garbage time is an arbitrary—and somewhat offensive—term in NBA circles. For many, it carries a negative connotation that suggests it's inferior time reserved for inferior players. (Several NBA players and coaches declined to be interviewed for this story.)
But that isn't the case, according to some guys around the league.
"Honestly, I never really looked at it as garbage time," Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell, a third-year player, said. "If you treat the game and come into the game with the right mindset and the right respect towards the game, you never look at anything as garbage time."
Quinn Cook, a reserve guard for the Warriors, said he would play the last three minutes of a blowout during his freshman year at Duke.
"I learned at a young age to take advantage of every second you are on the court," Cook said. "A lot of guys weren't taught that, but they learn quickly. You can go 10 days without playing, then you'll appreciate those two minutes."
No matter how a player interprets it, there comes a point when the game is likely out of reach. Sometimes, garbage time is only the final 40 seconds. Other times, the blowout could start as early as the second quarter, depending on the size of the lead and the talent discrepancy between the teams.
For coaches on the losing side of a blowout, garbage time typically equates to throwing in the towel. On both sides, coaches need to evaluate several factors before emptying their benches.
"The first thing a coach has to determine is what is garbage time?" former NBA coach and current TNT analyst Mike Fratello said. "Does it start at the five-minute mark? Does the other team pull their starters out, and if they do, do you pull yours out? All of that goes into a coach's decision process."
With modern-day NBA teams able to eradicate 20-point deficits in minutes—see: the Warriors or the Rockets—coaches on the winning side can err by pulling starters too early. Fratello has seen that happen plenty of times.
"You've got to make sure that you win the game, first and foremost," he said.
But when games are legitimately out of reach, that doesn't mean the remaining play is inconsequential for the players on the floor. There's a reason players and coaches get defensive about the topic.
Garbage time is not a glorified pickup game filled with lobs and 40-foot threes (although that has happened). While departing fans may be getting a head start on traffic, players are making their case for more playing time.
Before he was Agent Zero, the franchise player and perennial All-Star with the Wizards, Gilbert Arenas was a second-round pick with the Warriors in 2001.
Unlike Golden State's first-round picks that season—Jason Richardson (fifth overall) and Troy Murphy (14th overall)—Arenas was not entitled to minutes. Playing time in Oakland those first few months came sporadically, if at all.
"I had to scratch for every minute I could possibly get," Arenas said from a Los Angeles-based studio that hosts his Complex Network daily sports talk show, Out of Bounds. "The most difficult thing is trying to transfer your game into three minutes of end-of-the-clock basketball."
When he did see the floor during garbage time, he faced players in similar situations. He recalls matching up with Carlos Arroyo, an undrafted rookie with the Raptors, during a blowout at the end of his second NBA game.
"He embarrassed me so bad, it stuck with me," Arenas said.
In his first few months in the league, Arenas rode the fine line between playing within the team's system and being unapologetically aggressive.
"Everyone comes to see the starters, of course. But the 13th, 14th guy on the roster, he's going to get in once every 10 games, so that is basically his playoff moment," Arenas said. "I hated when someone said, 'Run the clock out, or don't shoot this.' But wait a minute, you guys played your game. This is my game now. When I get in, it's not minus-30, it's 0-0. I'm trying to show my coach and my teammates that, 'Hey, I can do the job, too.'"
Backup Clippers forward Sam Dekker said, "We are still all [professionals]. Anyone that is out there isn't a scrub. ... You never know who is watching."
Egos can sometimes get in the way. Playing for stats or out of spite can disrupt team cohesion on the floor.
Harrell said some players do play harder during garbage time out of frustration. He said others just want to "get some shots up before the clock runs out to get on the board."
In reference to those me-first players, Fratello said, "If they touch it and they go on their own, you kind of live with it if it's not something stupid."
Fratello, who last coached the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2006-07 season, saw a number of players inch their way up the depth chart based on impressive performances during limited minutes.
"If I put you in, show me what you can do so I can put you in the rotation," he said. "If you are No. 11, show me you can be No. 10 if we get an injury."
"Rewarding them is giving them an opportunity," he added.
Let's talk about those unwritten rules.
Basketball purists and NBA veterans are quick to abide by tradition: respect the game and respect the opponent. For perennial winners like the Warriors, blowouts happen often, so players are accustomed to the etiquette.
"There are certain times you are winning, if there is no more shot clock, we will dribble the clock out," Cook said. "It's a respect thing, because you'll hear more from your teammates."
While sportsmanship is prevalent in all sports, it may take time for young players to get accustomed to the nuances of NBA basketball.
"You can't assume a first- or second-year player knows that," Fratello said. "Wherever they came from, it might not have been discussed. Or they were a starter, so they never knew what the right thing to do was during the last 30 seconds."
Over time, NBA players learn to operate within the system. No matter the score, coaches want their players to execute the plays they practice, and do so at a high intensity. However, the losing team may frown upon that approach during the final seconds of a blowout.
"They teach you to play until the whistle blows and play every possession like it's your last," Arenas said. "And then the last few minutes when you are up 20, the other team is getting mad because you're not letting up."
The key for the winning team is to try not to further embarrass the other team. That means not running up the score, showboating or playing unnecessarily hard defense. However, playing nice often invites the other team to subtly take advantage.
"That unwritten rule, it just seems so stupid to me personally," Arenas said. "Because if you ever notice, teams that are winning, you're not allowed to shoot the ball. But the team that is losing, they can keep firing away. So it's five shooting the s--t out of the ball and the other five holding the ball, and now you got a game."
By far the most critical violation of Garbage Time 101 is the final possession. If the winning team has possession and the shot clock is turned off, players are expected to hold the ball. No three-pointer, no layup and especially no dunking. No exceptions.
Saric's dunk wasn't a 360 or a self-alley-oop. But in NBA garbage time, it was the ultimate form of bush league.
If you can't understand that, it's OK. You aren't supposed to. Sometimes the players don't even get it themselves.
"I was surprised," Saric told reporters about the Clarkson incident after that Cavs game. "I thought we are NBA players, to be mad on something like that, for me, is like a little bit weird."
He continued: "But I want to apologize ... It's not against somebody. It's not like intentional."