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Smallest Player the Biggest in Clutch

 


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/ Jan. 27, 2005

Earl Boykins Munchkin. Oompa loompa. Mini-me. Shortie. Lil’ Earl. The next Mugsy. It doesn’t matter. Call him what you want to call him. He’s heard them all.

But you had better call him Clutch. That’s the most accurate, the most fitting.

Sure, Denver Nuggets guard Earl Boykins is the shortest player in the NBA, standing not-so-tall at 5-foot-5. He would be on the short end of many junior high teams. He has a perfect view of Shaquille O’Neal’s shorts. He may be the only professional athlete who shops in the kids’ section for himself.

But he’s over all that. He knows he’s short. He knows he has as good a chance of posting up his man as he does finding his size at a big and tall shop. He’s played this game this way his whole life.

But this season may be Boykins’ best. The smallest man on the floor has come up big for the Denver Nuggets more than anyone on the team. More than Carmelo Anthony, who averages more than 20 a game. More than Kenyon Martin, the only Nugget with All-Star experience. More than anyone who starts, because Boykins had started just one game through the midway point in the season.

Boykins – who was not drafted out of Eastern Michigan in 1998 and first played in the Canadian Basketball Association – has made eight shots this season coming in the final five seconds of a quarter. And he’s sank 10 shots in the final 10 seconds.

It took him all of one home game to get started. As the final seconds of overtime ticked away in Denver’s home opener against the hated Minnesota Timberwolves, Boykins broke a tie by draining a jumper over the 6-foot-1 Troy Hudson, giving Denver its first win of the season.

But Boykins’ best clutch performance came against the Northwest Division-leading Seattle Supersonics on Jan. 18. In the 22 minutes he played before the Nuggets forced overtime that night, Boykins recorded just three points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field.

But in the extra session, the little man hit on four of five shots from the field, including one three-pointer, and on six of seven from the free-throw line. That set an NBA record of 15 points in an overtime period, eclipsing the previous best of 14 by Indiana’s Butch Carter in 1984.

On the other bucket the Nuggets scored in that overtime, Boykins had the assist. Denver won, 116-110.

The next night, Boykins’ 25 points was a game-high in Denver’s win over Memphis, giving the Nuggets their first back-to-back wins since they took four straight at the beginning of December.

“I’m surprised every time he steps out on the court,” Martin told reporters after the Seattle game. “A guy that size. The things he can do. He’s got the heart of a lion. It just shows that when your heart’s that big and you care that much about playing the game, good things will happen to you.”

Many of the good things to come Boykins’ way have come this season, his seventh in the league. He toiled on five different teams his first five seasons, signing few 10-day contracts here and there, and seeing minimal playing time.

But since signing with the Nuggets as a free agent in the summer of 2003, he has yet to miss a game, which may be his biggest contribution of all to an injury-riddled team that has used 15 different starting lineups this year.

This season, Boykins has career highs in points (32 points, twice), field goals made (11) and free throws made (10). His first career-high scoring game came one week after he shot down Minnesota in overtime, and against the defending champion Detroit Pistons.

It also gave Boykins the distinction of being the shortest player in NBA history to drop 30 in a game, a mark previously held by the 5-foot-7 Spud Webb, who surpassed 30 four times in his career. Eight days later, Boykins hit 32 again.

Last season, his first with the Nuggets, Boykins averaged double figures in scoring (10.2 ppg) for the first time in his career. Midway through this season, he’s at 11.6.

If you ask him why he’s having a good year, how he finds space to shoot around guys nearly twice his size, Boykins will just tell you that it’s what he’s supposed to do. After all, when asked what he does with his off season, he said, “Play basketball.”

Maybe he’s good because his ego is as big as his shoes. Maybe he’s good because his heart is as big as the world the little man lives in. But maybe his game won’t have people calling him names much longer.

Unless they call him Clutch. Or the Sixth Man of the Year.







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