Jason Collins might be among the least skilled players in the NBA. He also has the power to shift the balance of an entire playoff series.
When the Orlando Magic face the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals beginning this Saturday, they'll have to contend with Collins, Atlanta's seven-foot defensive specialist. Collins' task? Defend Magic center Dwight Howard, the league's most efficient volume scorer, one-on-one.
Collins, no stranger to Howard, has a solid track record against Orlando's superstar. Indeed, two of Howard's worst offensive games as a pro came against Collins: as a rookie, Howard shot 1-of-5 for 2 points against Collins' New Jersey Nets. Two years later, he missed all six of his shot attempts, managing just 1 point in 26 minutes, against New Jersey.
That success carried into this season as well, and credit first-year Hawks coach Larry Drew for trusting Collins against Orlando. Collins averaged 19.8 minutes per game against the Magic, compared to 11.4 against all other clubs. Though Howard still scored better than one point every two minutes against Atlanta--19.3 points in 37.1 minutes, to be precise--Collins limited his efficiency; Howard's 43.1 percent shooting mark against Atlanta is his worst against any team this season.
Thanks to PopcornMachine GameFlows and ESPN play-by-play data, we can further isolate instances in which Collins and Howard played together. The results are staggering: in the 78:10 both players shared the court this season, Howard shot 14-of-33 (42.4 percent) and committed 13 turnovers. The data don't tell us whether or not Collins actually defended Howard on each possession--he could have gotten caught on a switch, or lost in transition--but they nonetheless show Collins' tremendous defensive impact.
As a bonus for Atlanta, Collins does more than bottle Howard up: he also limits his minutes by drawing fouls. In the teams' most recent meeting, Howard committed two fouls against Collins in the game's first four minutes, forcing him to the bench until the start of the second period. The score stood at 6-6 when Howard exited, but Atlanta had a 27-25 edge when he returned. In the first two minutes of the next period, with Howard back on the floor, the Magic went on a 9-0 run to take a five-point lead.
Collins drew eight of the 14 fouls Howard committed against the Hawks this season; five were offensive outright, and another two came in a loose-ball situation, which automatically gave Atlanta possession. Generally speaking, both teams play at slow paces, which raises the value of each trip down the floor. The Magic must limit their giveaways anyway, but especially ones which also tack a foul onto their best player.
The good news for Orlando is Howard utterly dominated the Hawks whenever Collins sat, which indicates it's in the Magic's best interest to saddle Collins with fouls to keep him on the bench. In 69 minutes versus the Hawks without Collins on the floor, Howard overwhelmed Atlanta offensively to the tune of 47 points on 13-of-16 shooting. That Howard attempted almost twice as many foul shots (31) as field goals with Collins benched indicates how vital Collins is to Atlanta's success, as neither his backups (Zaza Pachulia, Josh Powell, and Etan Thomas) nor the other Hawk capable of playing center (two-time All-Star Al Horford) can muscle Howard out of the lane or limit his easy shot attempts.
That Atlanta views Collins as a "Howard Stopper" is not news; that much became clear when Drew plugged Collins into his starting five when his Hawks played the Magic for the first time this season. That Collins has enjoyed success against Howard isn't exactly a surprise either. But now we know the extent to which the unassuming veteran can limit Howard. And those results are simply too eye-popping to ignore.