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.
Collison and Martin have been so good working the two-man game that Collison leads the team with a 7.9 assist-to-bad pass ratio, according to 82games.com.
“His basketball IQ is very high, so he knows when to do something and when not to do something,” Martin said. “There were a couple of times when I cut and he didn’t throw the ball because he knows he shouldn’t have. He doesn’t force anything. He’s just a high IQ basketball player.”
Having previous partners, Martin said, has helped him and Collison develop chemistry quicker.
“He gave me a couple of unbelievable passes in the past two to three weeks that I thought it was Brad,” Martin joked. “Because it’s just passes that you don’t think that’s there, that can get through. But somehow he got it through.”
Much like Harden and Collison showed, the two-man game still can be successful even after it pops up on every opponent scouting report. Martin, who ranks third on the team in scoring with a 15-point average, said it’s a result of having several options.
“I can dribble off, I can throw it to (Collison), he can throw it off to Reggie and come down and set a screen, I can go backdoor,” Martin said. “There’s just so many things you can do when you’re playing with another player besides just playing by yourself.
“We just read each other well. We talk about it a lot and it’s becoming critical in our second unit.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Collison and fellow big man Kendrick Perkins both have good hands and good instincts that make them well suited to set up perimeter players for points.
“They have a good feel for the game,” Brooks said.
It’s helped to bring needed offensive balance to a Thunder squad that sometimes has a tendency to sit back and rely on its All-Star duo of Durant and Russell Westbrook to make spectacular plays.
“We’re just trying to work on areas of our offense where we can have different guys make plays,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t always have to be Russell and KD. Our bigs, Perk and Nick, they can handle the ball and pass from a few areas of the floor that we’ve been working on.
“It’s just something that we have to build our team on because we know that Kevin and Russell will always be there to give us plays. But it’s nice to have some other guys that are able to make plays.”