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Jason Collins thrived in a starting role on Wednesday night against the Cavaliers.BOSTON -- Jason Collins got the official word from head coach Doc Rivers about 50 minutes prior to tipoff on Wednesday: He would be starting for the first time as a Boston Celtic.
With the C's mired in a three-game losing streak and in need of yet another rotation shakeup, Rivers turned to the player he's used less than any other this season and Collins delivered by impacting several key areas in Boston's 103-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The basic stats won't jump out of the box score: one point, two rebounds and six fouls in 23 minutes for Collins. But a glance at the plus/minus column painted a more potent picture of Collins' overall impact. Collins registered plus-23 for the game, good for second on the team behind only Paul Pierce, who was plus-29 while scoring a season-high 40 points.
There was no highlight dunk for Collins, no stellar block or nifty steal along the baseline; he didn't gobble up every missed shot or ignite a scoring run for Boston. But he did set hard screens for his teammates, make the proper rotations on the defensive end, look to both take charges and challenge Cleveland's looks around the basket, and, above all else, bring some professionalism and toughness to a team that needed a sense of accountability.
As a testament to all that Collins did for his team, Pierce hand-delivered him the game ball afterward.
“Well, Jason really fills up the lane and he’s not afraid to take charges," said Pierce. "Another big body to come out on people who likes fouls, he takes charges. He throws his weight around. That’s something that we need sometimes. Guys who go out there, put in that type of grit, that defense that we need. He was able to do that. He was able to show exactly, by example, what we need out there at different times. That’s exactly what we needed tonight, some toughness."
Added Kevin Garnett: "[Collins is] a gutsy veteran that knows coverages, very professional. JC's what we call a solid guy. He's not going to make too many mistakes. He knows his role. Doc's looking for different lineups and he came in and did his job tonight. He got the game ball. It's good to see him get an opportunity and take advantage of the opportunity, so I was happy for him."
Taking pressure off of Garnett was part of Collins' mission on Wednesday -- something no other Celtics big man has been able to do consistently this season. With Cleveland surging early in the fourth quarter, Garnett sat at the 5:28 mark with Boston nursing a six-point lead. Collins paired with Brandon Bass in the frontcourt, and, until he fouled out with 3:13 to play, he anchored Boston's defense as the team embarked on a 10-1 run to shut the door on the Cavs for good.
"JC's guarded so many premier post guys since he's been in the league -- he and his brother -- he knows how to guard," Garnett said. "He plays with an oomph, if that's even a word. What I mean by that, he plays power basketball, he's firm, and I think sometimes we lack that. I think he came in and was very firm, not only with his fouls, but with his shows, and we communicate really well. So, it was good. It was good to work with him."
One might have thought that a lack of consistent playing time in recent weeks -- prior to Tuesday's loss, Collins hadn't played since Dec. 1 -- would hinder Collins' effectiveness Wednesday night. But in tune with being a true professional, Collins has kept himself in steady shape, and he said he didn't have any trouble with his wind throughout the night.
"I felt fine," Collins said. "I've been really working hard with the strength coaches and they do a great job of making sure I'm ready and, cardio-wise, I felt good."
"His preparation’s good," Rivers said. "So, still not the game minutes; we worry about his wind, but I wouldn’t worry about his play. He’s very attuned; you can hear him on the bench telling guys what they should’ve done when they’ve come out of games all year. So we knew he knew what to do; I didn’t know if he could sustain as far as minutes.”
Collins sustained his effort and his mindset until he was forced to leave the game with just over three minutes remaining, after fouling Tristan Thompson hard in the lane -- an infraction later deemed a flagrant-1 foul by the officials. Don't expect any sort of apology from Collins, though. In true enforcer-like style, he said hard fouls should be expected by those who meet him in the paint on a drive to the basket.
"If I'm not scoring, I better do something on the offensive end," Collins said. "I pride myself on setting tough picks and going out there and being physical. And on the defensive end, players drive the lane, I'm either going to try to take a charge on you or foul you pretty hard."
Whether Collins is a long-term solution at the starting center spot remains to be seen, but in the more immediate context, he delivered exactly what Boston had been missing recently.
"That's always my focus. That's what gets me going," Collins said of adhering to his style of play. "Every now and then you get a bone thrown your way, but I don't need that. I pride myself on defense and how the team does."