ORLANDO – Dwight Howard is an expert on awards. He has just been named the NBA’s defensive player of the year for the third straight season, which adds to a resume that already includes five All-Star Games, three all-NBA first-team honors and a finals appearance in only seven seasons. He could win an MVP award one day.
So I figure if Howard, awards expert, says that Jason Collins deserves an award, he must know what he’s talking about.
“He pulled me back,” Howard claimed of the Hawks’ Collins. “So of course I flew back. He should get an Academy Award.”
Actually, it wasn’t Collins who tugged at Howard in game one of the playoffs. It was Sasquatch. Possibly with weak-side help from the Easter Bunny and a herd of unicorns.
This first-round match-up between the Hawks and Orlando has been intriguing for two reasons: 1) Atlanta, a significant underdog, won the opener in Orlando; 2) Howard, despite scoring 46 points in the game, seemed frustrated by the Hawks’ aggressive and physical defense inside, led by Jason “Sluggo” Collins.
Things boiled over to the point of Howard head-butting Collins while he had his back to him, throwing out his arms as if Collins had pulled him back to cause the contact. But there’s no evidence a pull ever took place, and Collins, briefly knocked dizzy, mused after the game, “I’m ready for elbows and arms but I’m not ready for a head butt.”
Collins laughed Monday when told Howard blamed him for the contact.
“Really? Hah! Wow,” he said.
“That’s interesting. I guess that’s one perspective on history. And then there’s the truth.”
Collins said Howard was just frustrated “because he had just lost the ball.”
Then there’s this: “Dwight’s gotta know: Every time he’s going across the lane or he’s running in transition, he’s going to get hit.”
Collins was on the Hawks’ roster a year ago but maybe you might have missed that. He played only six minutes total in two of the four losses to Orlando. It was one of coach Mike Woodson’s decisions that then assistant Larry Drew disagreed with. Drew said when he got the job, “I was adamant about Jason coming back.”
So the Hawks re-signed him for another year.
“At the end of the night when you look at his stat sheet, you’re not very impressed,” Drew said. “But he plays with a physicality. He doesn’t give up angles. He does the little things that you need against powerful centers like Dwight.”
Collins is in his 10th NBA season. He’s a survivor. He came into the league with New Jersey as a first-round pick out Stanford, where he played on a 27-4 team in 1999-2000 with his twin brother Jarron. He had a nice scoring touch in college.
“I shot threes,” he said, proudly. Yes, there is video to back this up. But he realized early he wasn’t going to be a scorer in the NBA.
“I learned that if I wanted to have a long career in this league, I had to be good in my role as a solid low-post defender,” he said. “Whether it’s accepting a charge or doing things that don’t show up in the box score to help teams win, that’s my role.”
His stat line from game one: 6 fouls, 1 point, 1 steal.
“There’s not a lot of glory to what he’s doing, but we all understand the significance,” Joe Johnson said.
When he came out, his teammates gave him an ovation. The trainer gave him ice.
“Going against a great low-post player, you know you’re going to need some ice bags after the game,” he said.
He was a rookie with the Nets when he went up against Shaquille O’Neal in the finals. That was his entry point into a bruising career path.
“Being a professional athlete is all about challenges and wanting to go up against the best,” he said. “For me, Shaq was the benchmark. He had one dunk on me that was so nasty that I had 15 messages on my cell phone after the game. Friends just asking, ‘Hey, I saw the game. Are you alright?’”
Collins survived. Nine years later, he’s going against Dwight Howard, who doesn’t like him very much. Shaq didn’t like him either. He must be doing something right.
By Jeff Schultz
Last few Hawks blogs