That rookie label, it doesn't really matter." - Lil Dimes
Ahead of the game, I was focused on one thing: the NBA's rookie PER leaders facing off, in Brandon Jennings and Marcus Thornton. Both had sustained high levels of basketball for multiple games, and I figured both would be on the floor with the game on the line. 25.2 points/36 minutes versus 25/36 minutes. The off-the-dribble revelation versus the off-the-ball machine. Buckets North versus Buckets South.
Instead, both guys found themselves watching a third rookie steal the show. One watched from the comforts of his warm-ups and the bench, and the other watched from a little bit closer, but ultimately, watch was all they could do with this guy on the floor.
The end-game statistics will say Darren Collison wasn't overtly spectacular. His 18 points on 12 shots, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 5 turnovers barely edged Jennings' 14 points on 15 shots, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 5 turnovers.
But Collison provided two things tonight that the box score won't tell you about: resilience and high leverage performance. The two went hand in hand.
Consider Dimes' initial play. Among other things, he missed multiple lay-ups, had a discontinued dribble in the first, threw the ball away on back-to-back possessions in the second, traveled in the third, and lost the ball to a huge, momentum-shifting, late-game, fast-break slam by Hakim Warrick. His first 28 minutes of the game had seen him produce 10 points on 10 shots, and just 6 assists versus 5 turnovers. It was not a good night, by any measure, regardless of the fact that Jennings had been just as mediocre, across from him. His finish, though, and his ability to shake off a mediocre game, was thoroughly impressive. His last 8 minutes saw him produce 8 points on two shots, 2 assists versus 0 turnovers, and a huge strip of Brandon Jennings.
Collison could easily have folded when Warrick through down that dunk. He had struggled immensely, and the spectre of Devin Brown loomed large from the bench. Instead? He canned another critical three pointer and played huge offense and defense with the game on the line. Throughout the game, Dimes made rookie mistakes; down the stretch, he made plays that most veterans in this league won't make.
Team Thornton was established a few nights ago; now it's Dimes' turn. Team Collison, rise!
Game bullets thoughts after the jump
- David West gets credit tonight, too. While I still felt like he ceded too many late-game boards to Warrick and Co., West was certainly more aggressive on offense. Seemingly for the first time in a while, he was also involved in the passing game. This is the West we know of the last few years, and performances like these against teams like the Bucks should hopefully become the norm again.
- Okafor again straddled the line between irrelevant and sort of useful. In many ways, he's becoming a kind of "specialist" player for the Hornets, not too different from a lefty middle reliever in baseball. Sure, he starts. But the team sets up very few plays directly for him (as opposed to the Byron Scott strategy). Then, he's pretty much yanked until the team is desperate for his rebounding or his defense. Watching Chandler's poor and injured play in Charlotte still indicates this was the right move... but using Okafor so minimally makes his contract seem far larger than it should be.
- Peja Stojakovic nearly lost this game single-handedly (lots of Hornets are trying to accomplish this feat in the early going). 3 for 16 is just absolutely awful. A measly 8 boards in 40 minutes just made matters worse.
- Speaking of three point bombers, Michael Redd looks super rusty. He figures to be one of the bigger players in the upcoming summer bonanza, but he'll have to play a lot better than this.
- Marcus Thornton struggled on offense (3 charges) and even more on defense tonight. The defensive end will certainly be his biggest stumbling block as a rookie; there were times tonight when he really, really struggled to keep up with Luke Ridnour (who, to be fair, was among the more highly touted point guards in the L, just a few seasons ago). In fact, he was benched in the 4th quarter after giving up back to back open J's to Luke off screens. After the second occurrence, both Byron Scott and Chris Paul were letting him hear it from the bench. Not a good day for Team Thornton, but I trust he learned more in this game than in any other thus far.
We started with Team Collison, so let's end with him. On the other hand from Marcus, Collison is an amazing defensive rookie. I credit a lot of Jennings' sub-par performance to him; even on Jennings' blow-by lay-up in overtime, Collison stayed with him for almost five to six steps of the drive. Collison's most impressive attribute is his lateral foot speed (which, with modern block/charge rules, I consider to be the single most valuable attribute a defensive player can possess). It's simply uncanny. Tyson Chandler was another player with incredible lateral abilities, but he was D'ing up centers. Staying with opposing point guards is a tough, tough task in the NBA, especially with the perimeter hand-checking rules. But Collison doesn't care. That rookie label, it doesn't really matter.