Between the All-Star break and Friday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets, Kings coach George Karl pulled guard Darren Collison aside to give him an encouraging message.
“I told him that I thought his February was the best basketball he’s played for me since I’ve been here,” Karl said.
Collison then contributed 17 points off the bench in the Kings’ 116-110 win over Denver, continuing an impressive offensive stretch that really started Jan. 30 with a 20-point night in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Over his last eight games, Collison has averaged 18.4 points and shot 57.8 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from the three-point line.
Those numbers are well above Collison’s season averages – his 13.5 points per game mostly as a reserve rank third on the Kings behind DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay – and even outpace his numbers from last season, when Collison averaged a career high in minutes as the starting point guard.
During Collison’s recent run, his assist numbers have dipped – an average of 2.3 in his last eight games compared to 3.9 for the season. Karl said that decline isn’t entirely coincidental. While technically the backup point guard, Collison also has played alongside league assist leader Rajon Rondo, lessening the need for Collison to be a distributor.
“I think he and Rondo are getting more comfortable with each other,” Karl said. “Sometimes with two point guards together (on the court), there’s got to be a commitment or compromise – you’re not always going to have the ball in your hand. I think Darren now understands we’re going to give him some point guard responsibilities when Rondo is in the game, but he’s going to be more of a scoring guard when Rondo’s in the game.”
With two point guards in the lineup, Karl noted the strategy frees Collison in transition. With Rondo bringing the ball upcourt, Collison can run out more quickly after a change of possession and try to create a shot opportunity on the fast break. According to NBA.com, Collison ranks first on the Kings and ninth in the league this season in points scored in transition at 4.2 per game; seven of the players ranked above him have been All-Stars.
“When Rondo’s in the game, there’s more opportunities for (Collison) to get into those areas of scoring in the open court,” Karl said. “I think early in the season he didn’t get there as often. I think he’s getting there now.”
After Friday’s win, Collison said he’s “just being aggressive” offensively and aware that “right now is a very important stretch” for the Kings. About this time last year, a core muscle injury ended Collison’s season after 45 games. This season, he’s a key contributor on a Kings team that hopes to make a push for a low playoff seed.
That postseason drive likely will require defensive improvement by the Kings, who are allowing an NBA-high 109.1 points per game. And while giving up 110 points to the Nuggets on Friday might not seem like progress, the Kings found some positives in their defensive effort. On Saturday, Karl again pointed to several “great” defensive plays by Collison, including his steal with two minutes to play that led to a transition layup and gave the Kings a nine-point lead.
“I think he’s just playing with more confidence, and I think we’re getting more defensive presence at the point guard position because of his hands,” Karl said.
“That (steal) made the game somewhat easy. The more defensive players you can put on the court, the better we’re going to be. The more passing we put in the game, the better we’re going to be.”