When he catches the ball at the high post, just inside the crown of the 3-point arc, Nick Collison reads the defense before making a decision.
Ideally, he wants to hand off the ball to an approaching Kevin Martin and immediately use his body as a shield to create space for the sharpshooter. But every now and then, Collison will catch the defense cheating, overzealously jumping out too much to block a pass. That's when Collison attacks, faking a pass to Martin before taking two dribbles for an uncontested dunk.
Without fail, the crowd inside Chesapeake Energy Arena eats it up.
And Collison loves it, too.
“It doesn't happen very often,” Collison said, “but that's a fun play.”
It's one of the many wrinkles Collison and the Thunder have employed in recent weeks, taking advantage of the nine-year veteran's savvy and passing skills to shore up shaky scoring in the second unit.
“I have a lot of fun with it,” Collison said. “I like passing the ball. I feel like I've always been a pretty good passer, but I haven't been in those opportunities as much. We've found some nice offensive action with that. So it's been fun for me.”
Coupled with his consistently rock-solid defense, Collison's added responsibilities offensively have taken his game to new heights. He's making himself more of a threat to score, either as a midrange shooter or by slipping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls, and he's setting up other teammates simply by making the extra pass.
On the first possession of the second quarter Friday at Minnesota, for example, Collison set a ball screen for Reggie Jackson before diving to the basket. When two Wolves defenders collapsed onto Collison, he hauled in the pass and in one motion fired the ball to Hasheem Thabeet, who cut baseline for a thunderous one-handed dunk.
“They're putting me in positions now where I'm handling the ball in those (free-throw area) situations,” Collison said. “And all year we've been working off pick and rolls, catching the ball in the pocket, which we call it, and then making plays on the weak side after drawing the defense.
“We've gotten better at that, just being in those situations and getting more comfortable with it. And our spacing's better so the passes are easier. It's kind of a progression with our team.”
Collison's contributions have been a boost to a bench unit that, for much of the season, has struggled to consistently keep up with its counterparts in the wake of almost wholesale changes that included the loss of reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. The Thunder's bench went from outscoring opposing benches by 5.1 points on average to getting outscored by a tenth of a point.
But thanks in large part to Martin's renowned efficiency, as well as Collison's emergence as a scorer and passer, the Thunder's bench is quietly more efficient than ever. Last year, the bench shot 45.5 percent. This year, in fewer minutes and shot attempts, OKC's bench is shooting 46.5 percent.
“We've kind of changed the way we do things,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of the bench. “We have a different group of players, but (Collison) has stepped up a lot with his part of the offense and helped us transition.”
Collison said both at the end of last year and the start of this year that he wanted to look for his shot more this season. His 3.7 attempts per game aren't much, but it's the most he's averaged since the 2009-10 season. He's also connecting on a career-high 61.2 percent of those attempts, making the most of the opportunities he does get.
“I think a lot of my opportunities come and go a little bit just based on the way the game goes,” Collison said. “But what I don't want to do is get to the point where I'm passing up good shots because I think that's bad for our team. When you pass up a good shot sometimes you don't ever get a better one. I want to be able to be (a threat) where teams have to guard me so I can play with Kevin (Durant) and Russell (Westbrook) and those guys late in games. I want to be able to be out there and be a threat.”
Brooks was asked if Collison is playing his best ball of the season.
“It's hard to say because he's so consistent,” Brooks said. “He's always so consistent that I don't know if it's his best ball but he's playing good basketball.”