Collison Finding a Quiet Groove

It's one of the great dilemmas in sports. How do you become intense while staying relaxed? How do you go all out and stay focused, yet keep your emotions in check?

Darren Collison believes he's finally reached that point in his NBA career, thanks to Steve Nash. He's also back to playing like he did in last year's historic season, thanks to Victor Oladipo.

Collison's easy to miss in Pacers games, what with Myles Turner blocking shots and draining 3-pointers like no big man in the league and Bojan Bogdanovic scoring like never before and Thad Young doing his Swiss Army impression. And then reserves like Cory Joseph nearly get a triple-double and Domantas Sabonis reels off another double-double and before you know it everyone's forgotten about the point guard who makes the offense hum.

Collison was sitting by himself in the corner of the locker room following the Pacers' 105-90 victory over Cleveland on Saturday. The media attention focused first on Turner, who had sent a jolt of fear throughout Bankers Life Fieldhouse after falling and grabbing his right knee early in the third quarter, not far from where Oladipo had gone down with a season-ending knee injury 2 ½ weeks earlier. Then the microphones drifted over to Cory Joseph, who fell one rebound short of his first career triple-double.

All good ol' Darren had done was finish with 18 points, nine assists and exactly zero turnovers. But then commonplace occurrences aren't as newsworthy as oddities such as the starting center appearing to suffer a knee injury or a backup guard nearly getting a triple-double or, for that matter, a bat flying around the fieldhouse. Collison is making pristine point guard play routine again, much as he did last season when he led the NBA in 3-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Collison has averaged 15.8 points, 6 assists and 1 turnover during the winning streak that reached five games on Saturday. For the week he compiled 25 assists with just one turnover. Just a few days ago rumors were spreading throughout the NBA that the Pacers might be interested in acquiring another starting point guard, but the question should be asked: who would be a better fit for this particular team than Collison, the shape-shifting point guard who adapts to provide whatever is needed?

Darren Collison

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

It would be difficult to recall any of Collison's nine assists against the Cavs. None of them were highlight caliber, but they led to field goals just the same. It would be just as difficult to recall any of his eight field goals. None were dramatic, but they all count the same.

He makes quiet contributions that have a loud impact.

"He's very, very under control," Thad Young said. "He takes his time. He likes to get into certain sets and make sure we're all in the positions we need to be in. And also, he doesn't want to hear from Coach Nate, screaming at him about not getting us into our sets.

"It doesn't hurt that he can really score the ball, too."

Added Joseph: "He's a high IQ player. He knows how to get a team going. He does whatever it takes for a team to win."

Collison credits Nash, the Hall of Fame point guard who was a two-time league MVP for his balancing act between aggression and calm. Put in touch via their mutual agent, they began communicating two summers ago. They talked again for a few hours before training camp began last fall, and Collison followed up with a texted question. The conversation two years ago trended toward the intricacies of details such as the proper execution of pick-and-rolls. Last year it was more about the mental state of playing the position.

"He's taught me everything I need to know," Collison said. "I pretty much got it down pat, where my emotions need to be as a leader. They're making a run, you still have to be able to be relaxed and make plays throughout that run. It's all about being a leader.

"When you get there it's a beautiful thing. And that exactly what he said to me. When you get to that point, it's a beautiful thing."

Collison's ascension to that level got an unwanted and unintended assist from Oladipo, who was lost for the season with a quad tendon tear on Jan. 23. Collison is probably Oladipo's greatest booster, often making it a point to refer to him as "our best player." He doesn't mind becoming a virtual two-guard and playing off the ball when Oladipo plays. But when Oladipo can't play Collison has little choice but to step up and play a greater role, as do the rest of the starters. And doing so brings out the best in him.

The numbers don't lie. In the 35 games Collison played with Oladipo this season, he averaged 4.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers. In the 21 games he's played without Oladipo he's averaged 6.5 assists and 1.5 turnovers. He's also scored more and shot a higher percentage during Oladipo's absence – 57 percent from the field during the current win streak, including half of his 14 3-point attempts.

The combined result is that Collison's season is shaping up much like a year ago. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a tic under 4-to-1 and his 3-point percentage is up to .414.

"The season was a slow start for me but we were (winning) so it took some sacrifice on my part," Collison said. "But now with Vic out I have to be more aggressive."

As do the rest of the Pacers, who even with their lone All-Star out for 20 games and counting have compiled a 37-19 record that is the franchise's best since the 2013-14 season. That team was 43-13 at the same point of the season and would go on to win three more games before winning just 10 of its final 23 games.

This team appears to have a sturdier framework, far less likely to crumble under the weight of jealousies and insecurities. This team is exceptionally mature and cohesive, not to mention versatile to the point of being unconventional.

Turner - who reported no problem with his knee afterward - hit his first two 3-pointers to extended his consecutive streak to eight before missing the next two, but still improved his season percentage above 40. Turner's backup at center, Sabonis, hit his only 3-point attempt to improve his season percentage to a team-best 61.5 (8-of-13). Meanwhile, Joseph grabbed nine rebounds for the second consecutive game, falling one short of a 10-10-10 triple-double.

Whatever works.

Oladipo's absence raises another dilemma: how can a team get better without its best player? It remains to be seen whether the Pacers can consistently beat the league's elite teams without Oladipo. That will be learned in March, when the schedule grows menacing. But they're going about it the only way possible: by playing together and bringing out one another's best.

"Victor's forced all of us to do more," Young said. "All of us have to chip in each and every game."

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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