DENVER It is hard to know just what was going through Kenyon Martin's head as the basketball, with just under 30 seconds to play and the score tied, bounced high off the rim under the Denver Nuggets basket.
Did he think about how he hadn't had a rebound all night? Did he remind himself that the Nuggets, after seven years of meritorious service, hadn't been at all interested in retaining him last season?
Or was he simply playing basketball?
No matter what it was that stirred inside Martin, there is little doubt that pride was at its heart, just as it has been throughout a lengthy career that looked as if it might end before it started when he twice suffered a broken leg.
Martin muscled Kenneth Faried, the energetic rookie, out of the way and leaped over him to tip in the go-ahead basket with 27.1 seconds to play. Then, at the opposite end, Martin arrived at the basket in time to swat away Ty Lawson's layup with 19.9 seconds left, plays the Clippers parlayed into a 104-98 victory.
"He had the two plays of the game," Clippers guard Chris Paul said. "Everybody knows who the game ball goes to tonight."
It was not the only bouquet thrown his way. Martin received a video tribute during warmups and post-game handshakes and hugs by many on the Denver bench.
When a group of reporters arrived at his stall, Martin deflected any talk of payback, saying the Clippers were simply trying to boost their playoff position with a win. But after the crowd cleared, Martin made it just as clear as he did after the tip-in, when he flexed on his way back toward the Clippers bench, that it meant something more.
"It's a great feeling, because the way things ended the last couple of years," Martin said, referring to contract extensions that never came. "I'm no longer part of it here, but to come back and make two game-winning plays against your former team, there's nothing better."
The departure of Martin, 34, was the result of a change in priorities for the Nuggets, who went to the 2009 Western Conference finals, but began rebuilding last season by dealing Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. They now have only three players who are older than 26.
Earlier in the day, Martin reached through a crowd of reporters to shake hands with George Karl, whom he had called out recently for criticizing Anthony. But there still exist some raw feelings for Martin, who has never smoothed out the chip on his shoulder that he brought into the league as the No. 1 pick.
"It didn't hurt my feelings if that's what you're thinking," said Martin, relaxing in a courtside seat after the Clippers shootaround. "I knew I still had basketball to play. I look at it as they lost. The fans know what I brought to the table. I guess they wanted to move on with younger guys. I played my butt off every night you know that. I guess seven years and seven playoff appearances wasn't good enough."
That edge was sometimes softened by humor. Martin laughed recalling his earlier game against the Nuggets in Los Angeles.
"Somebody on the bench, Kostas Koufas got the ball on the block and they yelled, Go at him,'" Martin said. I looked over there like, y'all serious? Ain't nothing changed. It's still the same thing. Ain't nothing gonna be easy."
On this night, there was nothing easy for the Clippers. Martin's work at the end neatly covered what had been a sloppy night for them. The defense was lackadaisical at the start, Blake Griffin missed an uncontested dunk for the second time in a week, and Chris Paul was decisively outplayed during crunch time by Lawson.
"It's not always going to be a perfect game," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, whose team survived largely by sinking 14 3-pointers. "What we did tonight, which I was pleased with, is it was a five-minute game. It could have gone either way. We have to find a way to win those."
The victory was the Clippers' fifth in a row and 13th in 15 games, leaving them nipping at the backside of the Lakers for the third seed in the Western Conference. The Clippers, who trail the Lakers by a half-game, have a less difficult schedule but the Lakers own the tiebreaker.
"It's there. That's our motivation," said Mo Williams, who tossed in a 34-footer to beat the shot clock down the stretch. "We want to move up as far as we can. We feel if we win and take care of our business, everything will take care of itself."
That is much like the approach Martin took when he returned from China, where he played during the lockout. He could have signed with San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta or the Lakers. Talking with Billups helped sell him on the Clippers, where he backs up Griffin and serves as a late-game defensive stopper. But he said the biggest factor was that his three children ages 7 through 11 live in Los Angeles.
"If I went to Atlanta or Miami, I'd probably be starting by now," said Martin, who for the first time in his career is coming off the bench. "It's a major adjustment. But I had to be a man about the situation. I put my kids above everything."
He'll be a free agent again this summer, and though the market will not be swooning over a forward on the back side of his career, Martin says he has proven he is healthy and that he can help teams win. That has been evident as the games begin to carry extra weight.
Martin found himself defending Kevin Durant when the Clippers closed out Oklahoma City on Monday and he found himself sizing up the situation when Paul launched a jumper from the wing with a minute to play Wednesday.
"At that point of the game, all bets are off," said Martin, who until the final minute did little to support the Clippers' cause. "I pushed Faried up under the basket. He was ballwatching so I got into his body early and the ball came out perfect. It could have bounced any other way, but it bounced perfectly."
Faried saw it a little differently.
"He didn't ride me under anything," Faried said. "It was one of those plays that I had him boxed out, he grabbed my shoulders, the refs not going to call it he wasn't calling anything on these guys and K-Mart got the tip in. Plain and simple."
Perhaps, but Faried was more than likely speaking out of frustration. He is a player who plays with tremendous energy and passion, who is probably more disappointed in himself than anything else. Plain and simple.
In the long run, that pride will carry him far, just as it did his predecessor at power forward, who went to great heights Wednesday when it mattered most and took a team with him.