Nick Collison's fourth and final assist Friday stemmed from a set that's been frozen in time, an impromptu play the Oklahoma City Thunder has now used for the better part of three-plus seasons as a way of manufacturing some scoring punch out of the second unit.
It happened with just less than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Collison started by setting three screens, the first out front on the ball for Reggie Jackson, the second on a pin-down for Kevin Durant and the last one for Kevin Martin on the baseline. The first two were more for misdirection. The final screen was most significant.
Martin ran off the pick and popped out to the right wing, where he caught a pass from Jackson. Collison crept over and set up to provide another pick for Martin to use. With his defender crowding him and jumping to his left, Martin instead passed to Collison and made an immediate cut to the basket down the right baseline. Collison fired a bounce pass through two powerless Minnesota defenders, allowing Martin to haul in the ball, take two strides and score on an uncontested backdoor layup.
The two-man game had struck again.
It's taken 55 games, but the Thunder's not-so-secret weapon in the second unit has been reincarnated. More and more, the read-and-react chemistry between Martin and Collison is growing into a gorgeous set and resembling the rhythm once shared by Collison and former sixth man James Harden.
“Him and Harden had a great two-man game, and me and Brad Miller, we had a great two-man game,” Martin explained. “So it's kind of like me and Brad divorced, him and Harden divorced and me and Nick got together — in a basketball way.”
Scoring in the second unit has been sketchy this season, falling from 31.3 points per game a year ago to a 29.3-point average this year. The drop-off was to be expected considering the departures of Harden, Daequan Cook, Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammed, each of them more offensive-minded than their successors.
At the time of the Harden trade, most seemed more concerned over the Thunder losing its spark plug as opposed to a budding star. No small worry within that cloud of concern was whether Martin could replicate Harden's chemistry with Collison.
The two suddenly seem to be doing just fine.
Collison is on pace to register a career-high 116 assists. He's totaled more than 90 in only one other season. It was 2007-08. The Thunder didn't exist. Harden was a college freshman.
Of Collison's 78 assists this season, 42 of them, or 54 percent, have gone to Martin. The helpers have been by way of handoffs, spot-ups and, of course, those unexpected cuts.