BOSTON — When someone thinks of Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, Jason Collins does not usually come to mind. Yet he has battled all of the great big men of his era over the years, digging in and giving fouls while knowing he is not the player who people paid to see.
Now in his 12th year as a pro, Collins is finally playing with one of those great big men, rather than against him. Collins drew his first start of the season on Wednesday, manning the Celtics’ frontcourt with Kevin Garnett, with whom he formed an imposing front line.
“It’s better being on his team than against him,” Collins said of Garnett. “He’s obviously a great defender. He talks out there, which is so important. I pride myself on being a defender first, as well.”
Collins is intelligent, and not just from a basketball IQ standpoint. The Stanford graduate drew chuckles during training camp with his self-deprecating comments about his noticeably slimmer 255-pound frame, an unusually self-aware joke in a profession where athletes often treat their weight and dietary habits like state secrets. He finished Wednesday’s 103-91 win over the Cavaliers with one point, two rebounds and six fouls, including a flagrant foul on Tristan Thompson to punctuate his night, and was somewhat sheepish about answering reporter’s questions following an underwhelming performance on paper.
The biggest contribution Collins made could not translate to the box score, at least not directly. Celtics coach Doc Rivers started Collins as a ploy to get Cleveland to defend Garnett with a player other than their center, as banging with fives for 30 minutes a game is taxing on Garnett’s 36-year-old body. The gambit did not entirely work, as Cavs center Tyler Zeller still guarded Garnett most of the time. Still, it paid off defensively, where Garnett had a partner in his efforts to protect the rim.
“J.C.’s guarded some of the premier post guys since he’s been in the league, he and his brother,” Garnett said, referring to Collins’ twin brother, Jarron. “He knows how to guard. He plays with oomph, if that’s even a word. What I mean by that is, he plays power basketball. He’s firm. I think sometimes we lack that. He was firm not only in his fouls but in his shows [on screens] and we communicate really well, so it was good to work with him.”
Collins and Jason Terry, who also drew the start against the Cavs, formed an odd sort of difference-making duo. Terry aided the offense by knocking down six of his nine shots en route to 15 points and spreading the floor for Paul Pierce, who became the oldest Celtics player to score 40 points in a regulation game, while Collins facilitated the offense by opening up the Celtics’ scorers off pin-downs and screen-and-rolls.
Collins did not have much time to digest the news that he was starting and prepare, though. He learned of it about 50 minutes before tip-off, although perceptive as he is, he admitted that he felt a change coming. Rivers acknowledged that he had thought about starting Collins, but he had planned to wait until Avery Bradley returned from his shoulder injuries to make the move. Coming off a winless three-game road trip, Rivers apparently decided it was time for a change to be made.
Terry, who found out he was starting about the same time as Collins, credited his teammate for staying ready despite playing only 57 minutes total entering the day.
“He carries the same mentality, the same attitude, as me,” Terry said. “We’re going to come in, we’re going to grind, we’re going to work every single day and when we’re out there, we’re going to do our job. Whatever that is that night, I’m going to do my job and tonight was more evidence. With his screens, he opened up Paul Pierce on so many of those shots that he hit. He took several hard fouls. I don’t know what his line was, but you knew he was in the game. He made an impact.”
When Collins delivered the hard foul to Thompson that ended his night, he was greeted at the bench by high-fives and fist-pounds by thankful teammates. It was sort of strange to see a guy get congratulated for fouling out, but that was part of Collins’ duties on Wednesday. He manned the paint, he set some bone-jarring screens and he committed a few fouls that will require ice later for the unfortunate recipients of the contact.
In other words, he did his job.