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Jason Collins at work for the Celtics.Whether it was because he had played in Tuesday's loss to the Chicago Bulls for the first time since Dec. 1, or because head coach Doc Rivers had suggested lineup changes were on the horizon, Jason Collins showed up to Wednesday's matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers ready to play.
Even before he got the official word from Rivers that he would be making his first start of the season, Collins sat in Boston's locker room with Rajon Rondo, examining video of Cleveland from their game the night before against Toronto and discussing pick-and-roll coverages of point guard Kyrie Irving.
It was a snapshot of why Collins was called upon. Rivers wanted professionalism, toughness, and a guy that would do his job, plain and simple. Collins didn't disappoint, playing a season-high 23 minutes before fouling out, finishing with a +23 in the plus/minus column -- a sign of the impact he had in Boston's 103-91 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak.
Collins, perhaps most importantly, took pressure off of Kevin Garnett, in multiple ways. He started at center, allowing Garnett to slide back over to the power forward spot, and when they shared the floor together, they proved a capable defensive duo through their mutual habit of loud communication and reliable pick-and-roll defense.
The two shared virtually the same minute pattern, exiting and entering the game within minutes of each other. But midway through the fourth quarter, Collins helped to do what no other Celtic big has done consistently this season: He kept Boston's defense honest with Garnett off the floor. From the 5:28 mark to the 3:13 mark of the final frame, with Garnett on the bench, Collins bolstered Boston's defense and the team went on a 10-1 run that sealed the win. He blocked a layup bid from Dion Waiters, was credited with a steal on an Irving turnover, and he fouled out on a hard hit on Tristan Thompson, which was later deemed a flagrant-1.
"It's going to be the whole team," Collins said of the team performing with Garnett off the floor. "This is a long season, and it's going to be on every player in this locker room at some point to step up. Some more than others. But tonight was one of those nights where I had an opportunity to go in there and just play hard and try to go out and execute the game plan."
And he was, of course, happy to play alongside Garnett when he got the chance.
"It's a lot better being on his team than against him, and obviously he's a great defender, and he talks out there, which is so important," Collins said of Garnett. "I pride myself on being a defender first, and we're both 7-footers, so we have the height, we have the length, and we're just trying to clog up the paint and make the other team shoot a bunch of jump shots."
While he can't fully match Garnett's importance to the team defense, Collins' willingness to communicate on the defensive end sets him apart from several of his teammates. It was evident when he was on the floor, but he initiated it well before the game, when he was dissecting film with Rondo.
"[Irving's] one of the top five point guards in this league and it's always important to be on the same page with the guy who's guarding him, just so he knows where his help is and where I'm going to be and where [Garnett] is going to be," Collins said when asked about working with Rondo. "So, you want to make sure everybody's on the same page with the game plan."
The lingering question now is whether Collins' presence can lead to sustainable results. Sure, it worked against an inefficient Cavaliers team playing without its stud big man in Anderson Varejao, but can it hold up against some of the elite teams in the league? Rivers has already tinkered his lineups and rotations several times this season, but given his impact Wednesday, Collins should plan on remaining ready for the immediate future.