Word came down about 50 minutes before game time Wednesday night. Jason Collins, he of the 57 minutes played the entire season, would get the start at center for the Celtics against the Cleveland Cavaliers, in place of Brandon Bass, moving Kevin Garnett to power forward.
But that didn’t mean that Collins didn’t have a sense that he might get more playing time soon, that there might be more ways for him to contribute.
“I could feel a change was coming,” Collins said. “So with that, you’ve got to be ready for anything.”
Coach Doc Rivers had said before the game that the problem with starting Collins was that he is limited offensively. And that’s the way Collins played, scoring just 1 point with two rebounds in 23 minutes. But that wasn’t why Rivers started him.
“I thought he had an amazing impact on the game for us,” Rivers said. “Especially for Kevin. I thought Kevin enjoyed playing with him.”
Rivers used Collins because he said the Stanford product is the team’s second-best pick setter, and because pushing Garnett to power forward created more favorable matchups for the future Hall of Famer.
Really, it was about Garnett. It wasn’t about Collins.
Rivers had tried to wait for the return of guard Avery Bradley to make lineup changes. But Bradley won’t return to games until January. So in the wake of three straight losses, at Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago, Rivers went ahead and made the switch. It was time. Something needed to be done.
And in the coach’s eyes, the move paid off.
“Defensively,” Rivers said, of how Collins changed the game. “The rotations and the size. He took charges. He just clogged the middle up. He’s one of the better talkers on our team defensively, knows everything we’re doing. I thought it made Kevin relax. He’s felt like he’s had to do so much.”
It started from the beginning, according to Rivers. On the Celtics’ first basket, there was, as the coach said, “a bone-crushing pick.” That set the tone, established Collins’s presence.
There was some concern about Collins’s stamina, given that he had played so sparingly, though he said he felt fine. But for Rivers, there was no such concern about Collins’s preparation.
“He’s very in tune,” Rivers said. “You can hear him on the bench telling guys what they should have done when they’re coming out of games all year. You knew he knew what to do. I didn’t know if he could sustain as far as minutes.”
The 34-year-old Collins didn’t play much last season, either, totaling just 308 minutes in 30 games (10 starts) for the Hawks. He scored only 39 points, and amassed nearly as many fouls (34). He has 3 points this season in 80 minutes.
“He really fills up the lane,” Paul Pierce said. “He’s not afraid to take charges. Another big body to put out on people. He fouls. He takes charges. He throws his weight around. It’s something that we need sometimes, guys to go out there, with that type of grit, defense that we need. He was able to do that. He was able to show by example what we need out there at times. That was exactly what we needed [on Wednesday], some toughness.”
Garnett, meanwhile, scored 12 points against the Cavaliers, on 5-of-9 shooting. He added six rebounds and three blocks.
“It’s better being on his team than against him,” Collins said of Garnett. “Obviously, he’s a great defender, he talks out there, which is so important.
“I pride myself on being a defender first, and we are both 7-footers, so we have the height, we have the length. We’re just trying to clog up the paint and make the other team shoot a bunch of jump shots.”
Rivers had been particularly disappointed with the Celtics’ defensive performance against the Bulls, allowing a team that should have been tired to score at will. The Celtics haven’t been consistent on the defensive end and, while they are hoping Bradley makes a difference when he returns, answers need to be found sooner.
The answer, at least on Wednesday, was Collins, whom Garnett said, “plays with an oomph. What I mean by that is he plays power basketball. He’s firm. I think sometimes we lack that.”
Garnett added, “A gutty veteran that knows coverages. Very professional. JC is what we call a solid guy. Doesn’t make mistakes, knows his role. He came in, did his job [on Wednesday], and he got the game ball. It was good to see him get an opportunity, take advantage of an opportunity.”