NBA seasons are long.
I’m not professing to break any new ground with that statement, however true it may be. But they encompass a full six months and when you play 82 different times over that half-year, the reality is certain games mean more than others. To that end, the games that really tell you something different about the teams involved interspersed with a lot more that don’t.
Wednesday’s 99-93 loss to the Clippers falls in the latter category for the Dallas Mavericks, a harsh yet rudimentary case of a title contender beating a struggling team on the fringes of the playoff hunt.
There were once again signs of life from a Mavs team that can hang with anyone in short, fleeting bursts but ultimately, this will go down as just another game in January, if it’s even remembered at all. (Another game, that is, that drops Dallas to 13-23, the first time the franchise has been 10 games below .500 since the 1999-2000 season.)
Games like this can, however, tell a story about certain players and for a Mavs team tasked with evaluating the long-term viability of several assets heading into another possible offseason overhaul, those mini-referendums are worth their weight in gold.
So while the box score says that a lot more occurred beyond Darren Collison’s 22 points, none of it mattered more for Dallas’ intents and purposes than what the ex-UCLA standout did playing in his former stomping grounds, against his former mentor Chris Paul’s team.
And when his long, winding, 82-game year is up, it will go down as one of his capstone performances.
In spite of his protestations otherwise, it didn’t hurt that this game – like his 32-point tour de force last month against the Thunder and old buddy Russell Westbrook – came on a night with personal stakes involved.
The fact remains, though, that for about 20 minutes of game time, Collison was the best player on the floor of a prime time game against the best team in the league, in their building.
It all started with 7:28 left in the second quarter, when Collison was brought back in for Roddy Beaubois after a brief spell on the bench. One minute and 26 second later, he hit a three. 39 seconds later, it’s a driving layup. Then another. And, after a Chris Paul three, yet another. In a grand total of 1:41, Collison unleashed a personal 9-3 run that created the foundation for Dallas to get back into this game after being down nine points, one that was built off his sole great physical advantage – speed. After adding one more basket just before halftime – a six-foot floater that came with enough contact to merit a free throw – he went into intermission with a game-high 17 points.
When Collison’s at his best the way he was in that terrifying stretch, he is almost impossible to stop, a fact made evident by him running rings around Paul and Eric Bledsoe, two of the league’s better defenders at the position.
But we knew that already. We’ve seen Collison wreak havoc this way, like he did on opening night in this building against the Lakers and Steve Nash, like he did in that barn burner versus his former protégé Westbrook. Dallas knows it, and so too do his former employers New Orleans and Indiana. He even knows it; asked to describe what happened in that stretch, he nonchalantly chalked it up to “trying to be myself” and the lane “pretty much [being] open,” almost as though he doesn’t himself fully realize just how hard it is for most players to exploit that kind of space.
This is who Darren Collison is, and that is what he does.
No, the questions have always related to the length and timing of those outbursts, to discipline and consistency. Appropriately enough, each was addressed in different ways over the game’s final quarters when Los Angeles adjusted to take those looks away from him.
In the third, they were handled in his favor. It was only fitting that it kicked off on the play that gave Dallas its first lead of the night, a slash-and-kick that left him mobbed by defenders but still plenty of room to find Shawn Marion on the left side of the three-point arc for a trey that made it 58-57 Mavs. When the Mavs scored next, it went down in the box score as a Dirk Nowitzki bullet pass inside to Chris Kaman, but the play that made it happen was Collison’s hockey assist from the right side of the hoop.
(Speaking of Dirk Nowitzki, his Video Visit:)
There were buckets, too – namely a three of his own in the waning minutes that gave Dallas its largest lead of the night at 75-65. But the story was Collison imposing his will by not imposing it, letting his teammates work off the angles he gave them instead of working too hard to manufacture his own when they weren’t there.
It’s what Paul does every night, and what he did to Dallas on Wednesday to the tune of 19 points and 16 assists. It’s also what could be the difference between Collison being the future in Dallas, or cementing his rep as a role player who can’t steer the ship on a nightly basis.
And it’s what made the fourth quarter so frustrating. There were many bigger things, of course. Dallas didn’t blow that 10-point lead tonight, or drop 10 games below .500 for the first time in 14 years because of Collison. This pratfall, as Elton Brand put it, is a “record on repeat,” the Mavs finding another way to blow a lead against a good team.
But unlike the other three quarters, they didn’t fail in spite of Collison, either. As Paul’s play reached its climax, Collison’s faded to black in a vacant, scoreless final period. He wasn’t bad, per se; he rimmed a crucial three that would have cut the deficit to one point with 1:35 left, but he also wasn’t the one who got out foxed by Caron Butler on two straight rebounds, for example. He simply wasn’t present the way great point guards are in last minutes of a tight game. Collison became passive when Carlisle needed aggressive, tense when it was his loose play that swung the game in Dallas’ favor to begin with. He was exactly what these Mavs have been as a whole and, like the team itself, the positive flashes didn’t bear fruitful results.
And the Mavs are left scrambling, again, for answers ... from the vets to the rookies like Jae Crowder. Here's his DB.com Video Visit:
Like his teammates, Collison painted a dejected figure after the game. He dutifully took questions and he patiently gave answers, even though the look on his face betrayed his dejection; after the latest loss in a string full of them, the LA native couldn’t have looked more ready to skip town
There was a moment when his voice picked up, though, and when Darren Collison the point guard spoke like the leader his counterpart Paul, the one who Dirk labeled “the best leader in the league,’ is.
“I tell you one thing,” he began. “Once we get this thing rolling, when we turn this thing over, I don't think there's any turning back for us.
“All it takes is that one game to turn things around.”
That remains to be seen for these Mavs, but it may just ring true for their point guard, who took a game most will forget and turned into one that we, and he, might remember as the night that turned his future in Dallas around.