SAN ANTONIO — Nick Collison ran to the corner and waited.
Standing in the corner beats sitting on the bench, which is where Collison increasingly found himself in these playoffs. No double-digit minutes since Game 5 against Memphis. Didn’t even play Game 7 against the Grizzlies.
Quite a comedown for a guy who had played double-digit minutes in 50 of the Thunder’s 54 playoff games before this season.
But roles change. Rosters transition. Talents evolve. Which explains how Collison came to be standing in the corner at a crucial moment in Game 6 against the Clippers on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Time was, the corner was the last place you’d find Collison. On defense, he belongs in the paint, where he can knock heads and give up his body and basically get in the way. On offense, Collison would be in the middle of the action, somewhere around the ball, setting a screen or bouncing a pass for a layup.
But the corner was where Collison needed to be in the final seconds of the third quarter Thursday night. Russell Westbrook drove the lane and passed out to Collison, who drained a 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds left to tie the score and wipe out the Clippers’ lead, which had stood since 32 seconds into the game.
A pro’s pro had delivered for the Thunder. And that pro’s pro kept delivering.
Collison, playing only because of Serge Ibaka’s calf injury, stayed on the court 17 straight minutes. The Thunder trailed 59-54 when Collison arrived. The Thunder led 97-86 when Collison departed and won 104-98 to end the series.
“The ultimate professional,” Caron Butler called Collison. “Being ready at all times.”
That described Collison perfectly. That corner 3-pointer was Collison’s only shot of the game. But he played solid defense on Blake Griffin. Didn’t let the Clipper beast rebound much. Helped the Thunder offense flow with a couple of nifty assists. What could have been a disaster, the loss of Ibaka, turned out to be a blessing.
“I wanted to stay ready,” Collison said. “My minutes had been down in this series. It’s been an adjustment for me. I just tried to stay locked in. Tried to stay ready. Remind myself, when I get in the game, I know what to do. Try to get that comfort level early.”
Forty seconds after entering the game, Collison fouled Griffin, who made one of two foul shots. But that was the last time Griffin reached the foul line. In those 17 minutes banging against Collison, Griffin made just three of eight shots and grabbed just two rebounds. Collison mostly kept Griffin away from the basket. Now Collison will be asked to do the same against Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, beginning Monday night against the Spurs.
“He got a couple of buckets on me,” Collison said of Griffin. “I wish I would have made him catch it a little farther out, I could have played him better. But I felt I kept him off the boards, which is a challenge for me, because he’s big and strong and athletic. I thought I did well. I thought I did what I was supposed to do.”
Do what you’re supposed to do. The definition of a professional. The definition of NBA veterans who carve out a niche and make themselves invaluable to their teams, even if the shots and playing time grow more and more rare. The definition of Collison.
Which is how he came to be in the corner. Before this season, Collison had taken 21 career 3-pointers, and that’s over nine years. Very few by design. Just five in the last three seasons. But Collison has been working on his corner 3-pointer. He shot 17 3-pointers this regular season; made just four but kept at it.
“Crazy thing is, Nick has taken 1,000 (practice) shots from the corner, from the 3-point line, and hasn’t had many opportunities this season,” Scotty Brooks said. “I love the fact that we trusted him. We see him work every day. It’s nice that our guys rewarded him with a nice, clean pass and a belief he was going to make that shot.”
Collison said that in past years, he would have set up inside the 3-point line. But getting behind the arc spaces the floor. Spreads the defense. It’s harder to double team Westbrook or Kevin Durant or any of the Thunder’s athletic penetrators. Collison now scoots behind the line and is willing to launch, believing he will make it.
“The big shot was Nick,” said rookie center Steven Adams, who played an amazing 40 minutes and joined forces with Collison as the inside duo in the second half. “Nick kind of got us going. We used that momentum to carry on through the second half. We felt the momentum had changed.”
Collison’s shot changed the game. The Thunder went to the between-quarters huddle energized. The Clippers went to the huddle discouraged. Soon enough, the series was over. Turned by Collison, going from sitting on the bench to standing in the corner.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.