By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – Nick Collison is a naturally unassuming kind of guy. He grabs his lunch pail, goes off to work every day and earns his dollar.
Work conditions, however, have dramatically changed, and Collison is now at the center of a dilemma that threatens to unravel the Oklahoma City Thunder’s title hopes. Somehow he and his teammates must find a way to make life much more uncomfortable for the San Antonio Spurs’ offense without high-riser Serge Ibaka patrolling the paint.
Collison, the 6-foot-9, 33-year-old backup who had only averaged 11.6 mpg during the first two rounds of the playoffs and logged single-digit minutes in seven of the eight previous games heading into Monday’s opener of the Western Conference finals, is suddenly thrust into Ibaka’s starting job.
As everybody knows by now, the Spurs clobbered OKC with an alarming 66 points in the paint. Tim Duncan maneuvered unmolested inside for easy buckets that led to 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting in the first half — 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first quarter.
“We want to make it hard for them to make all their cuts and their passes,” said Collison, who received a half-dozen stitches in his lip after Game 1 and visited a dentist Tuesday morning to examine a tooth he thought might have been jarred from its root, but was not.
“They’re really good when they’re running through their offense and the ball is flying around and guys are wide open,” Collison continued. “We want to be able to throw their timing off a little bit, and some of that is physicality, but a lot of it is getting back and start playing at the beginning of a possession instead of being back on our heels and letting them run where they want to run.”
Collison only played 16 minutes in Game 1 and was scoreless with three rebounds, but there’s a belief that his more engaged, defensive effort during the Thunder’s impressive eight-minute stretch of the third quarter when they defended the paint as a team with more authority and twice seized a one-point lead, can carry over to Game 2.
“Our effort, intensity on the defensive end was really good,” Kevin Durant said. “We scrambled out, we made efforts, we rebounded the basketball, we attacked,” Durant said.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks experimented with multiple small-ball lineups in Game 1, but was burned badly defensively. One option in Game 2 is stay bigger and ride Collison as long as possible alongside starting center Kendrick Perkins and backup center Steven Adams.
“It’s hard for a coach to know what to do, especially with one of our starters being out, not knowing who to throw into the game, what lineups to use,” Durant said. “So you got to take that into account. He’s a great coach and he does learn from game to game, and knowing who to put out there. We can play with any type of lineup. It all comes down to effort and energy and just having that mindset that we’re locked in every single possession.”
Expectation is that Collison will not only be back in the starting lineup, but that he’ll have a bigger piece of Game 2, with the first eight minutes of the third quarter being the blueprint.
“We’re capable of doing it, but have to be able do it longer,” Collison said. “What we saw in that third quarter, that needs to be how we play, that needs to be our new normal.”