Darren Collison's chance to shine

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Has Darren Collison done enough to earn the Dallas Mavericks' starting point guard job?

His initial response to that question was an uncomfortable laugh.

"Heh, heh, heh … why you asking me?" Collison said after a dominant performance in the Mavs' 111-105 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. "I'm just out here trying to play my game. If I get an opportunity like I did tonight, I'm just going to try to play my game."

If Collison has learned anything during his frustrating third of a season with the Mavs, it's that he can't assume anything when it comes to a starting job.

That's a lesson Collison learned the hard way. Coach Rick Carlisle handed him the reins after Collison arrived from Indiana this summer, only to yank them away after a grand total of 14 up-and-down games.

Next thing Collison knew, the Mavs recruited Derek Fisher out of his rocking chair and gave the geezer the starting job.

Fisher lasted all of nine games with the Mavs -- or one tank of diesel gas in Carlisle's SUV -- before deciding he missed his family and/or figured out that he didn't feel like playing for a non-contender.

So the starting job was Collison's again, right? Well, it wasn't that simple. He had to compete with Dominique Jones, a dude the Mavs tried to trade for a few deflated basketballs before the season started.

After watching Collison carry the Mavs against a much more talented team, Carlisle was ready to make a commitment to him. Kind of.

"At this point," Carlisle said, "he's our starting guy."

Hey, that's a heck of a lot better than Carlisle going game-to-game with the decision. All it took was Collison pouring in 32 points -- matching the second most of his career -- on 13-of-22 shooting and stuffing the box score with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals.

Collison I told myself if I get this kind of opportunity again I'm going to go back to my old ways, just continue to attack.

-- PG Darren Collison on starting again

"Collison was terrific, really tremendous on both ends," Carlisle said. "The way he played tonight is really what we need from him just in terms of his presence in the game, his aggressiveness on both ends of the court. He just had great impact. And I'm not even talking about the points he scored, necessarily; although that's a part of it, certainly."

It's not like this is the first time Collison showed promise in a Mavs uniform. Collison was one of the Mavs' biggest bright spots during Dallas' surprising 4-1 start, averaging 16.2 points and 7.2 assists during that span.

Yet Collison was demoted by the end of the season's opening month. Dallas' decision-makers, who had grown accustomed to the basketball genius of Jason Kidd, quickly soured on Collison's poor decision-making and defense.

At this point, unless they go back to the point guard scrap heap, the Mavs don't have much of a choice but to live with Collison's inconsistencies and hope the 25-year-old four-year veteran grows into the job. It's either that or hand the reins to a guy who describes his approach as "like a dog chasing cars."

At five games under .500, what do the Mavs really have to lose by giving Collison a long leash?

"It's not about a leash," Carlisle said. "The word 'leash' suggests leeway to make mistakes, leeway to … I don't know what exactly it means. You want to explain that?"

Yeah, it's about leeway to make mistakes.

"He's had that," Carlisle said. "All of our guys have had that, if you've been around for four and a half years. I'm into presence. He had it tonight."

With all due respect, Rick, the season was barely into its second tank of diesel before Collison's leeway hit E.

That's why the mild-mannered Collison, who is playing for his third franchise in the final season of his rookie contract, muttered about not getting a fair shot after Fisher was signed. That was a desperation move for a franchise that's used to being in win-now mode. It was also a slap in the face of a point guard who lost his starting job with the Indiana Pacers after returning from an injury late last season.

"It kind of beat me up inside almost every night," said Collison, who readily admits he didn't like the situation but stresses that he responded by continuing to try to improve his game.

If Collison has a big chip on his shoulder, so be it. It might do him some good to play angry. The Mavs need him to be decisive and aggressive. They can't afford to have the hesitant point guard they saw all too often early in the season.

Collison attacked from the get-go against fellow UCLA alum Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. He knocked down a couple of early 3-pointers and lit it up for 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the first quarter. He had 27 by midway through the third but didn't get help from the Mavs' heavy lifters, with O.J. Mayo (4 points, 1-of-7 field goals, 6 turnovers) and Dirk Nowitzki (9 points, 3-of-11 field goals) having off nights.

"I'm really encouraged [with] the way he played," Nowitzki said. "For our team, he's got to stay aggressive and get to the basket and make some stuff happen. He was phenomenal for us tonight and fun to watch.

"Hate to waste an effort like that from him, obviously, but we need him to keep playing like that. Obviously, he's not going to score 30 every night, but we need him to attack and get to the paint and make some stuff happen."

Collison has to be an impact player for the Mavs to have any hope of making the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Carlisle has to commit to Collison for him to have any chance of being an impact player.

"I told myself if I get this kind of opportunity again I'm going to go back to my old ways, just continue to attack," Collison said. "I've been in the gym for this last couple of months on the grind. It's just about getting an opportunity to go out there and showcase it."

Collison, who accepts that point guards are ultimately judged by wins and losses, has the opportunity now. How long that lasts is at least partially up to his performance.