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John Collins isn't the Hawks' headline act, but he has been vital to their playoff run

·6 min read
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MILWAUKEE — John Collins loves to dunk on opponents.

He did it multiple times in Atlanta’s 116-113 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The most impressive and bold dunk came on a lob from Trae Young ... off the backboard ... in traffic ... in the conference finals.

“Me and Trae came to some basketball chemistry understanding, and I went up and finished the play,” Collins said. “I just feel like it turns my motor back up a little bit and just making me play a little extra harder. I just dunked on somebody, so that's going to turn me up.”

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But the play that had bigger impact on the game came late in the fourth quarter when Collins made a corner 3-pointer after the Hawks collected two offensive rebounds, including one by Collins while keeping the ball in play. Instead of a 111-107 Bucks lead with 1:39 left and a possession to drain another 24 seconds off the clock, Collins made it 111-110.

“Those are gritty plays and plays that win games,” Collins said. “Getting people extra possessions rather than making an open shot or dunking on somebody, which I love to do as well, but trying to find ways for our team to win makes me happy at the end of the day."

Collins scored 23 points on 11-for-16 shooting and collected 15 rebounds.

“He's been great for us,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. “When teams are switching and doing the swings that they are trying to do on the defensive end of the floor to really cover Trae, a lot of times they are trapping and switching a small on John and the big on Trae. John has taken advantage of that in the post scoring, or he has taken advantage of that on the offensive glass.

“His ability to spread the floor in pick-and-rolls, the versatility of the pick-and-pop game when a five is guarding him, he has done a great job of recognizing that and taking advantage of who is guarding him out on the floor.”

John Collins is averaging 14.6 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 56.1% from the field and 36.6% on 3-pointers in the postseason.
John Collins is averaging 14.6 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 56.1% from the field and 36.6% on 3-pointers in the postseason.

Young is the breakout playoff star in the East, but Collins is also having his moment, establishing himself as one of the talented young players in the NBA.

Collins, 23, is averaging 14.6 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 56.1% from the field and 36.6% on 3-pointers in the postseason.

Collins’ role will be even more prominent as the series continues because Bogdan Bogdanovic is hampered by right knee soreness and wasn’t 100% in Game 1. The Hawks need a reliable scorer after Young, and Collins can be that guy.

Collins was the first building block in Atlanta’s rebuild. General manager Travis Schlenk just took the job in 2017 and drafted Collins from Wake Forest with the No. 19 pick. It was Mike Budenholzer’s last season as coach the Hawks before taking the Bucks job.

Through bouts of frustration amid a poor start to the 2020-21 season, Collins and Young have developed chemistry.

It wasn’t that way earlier in the season. During a film session, Collins expressed his frustration with Young’s offensive decision – bad shots, early shots, late shots and holding the ball too long. That happens in a film session when a team isn’t playing well, and it didn’t have a long-term impact on their relationship. The Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce when they were 14-20 and replaced him with McMillan who began calling more offensive sets that involved more players.

In Game 1, six of Young’s 11 assists were to Collins, including three for alley-oop dunks.

“I love playing with Trae,” Collins said. “I always tell everybody I feel like our games fit like puzzle pieces. He's great at creating and finding slivers and holes, and I'm great at finishing those great plays that he makes. I feel like it just makes a great combo, as well as us liking each other off the court.

John Collins (20) and Trae Young have developed great on-court chemistry, which has helped the Hawks reach the Eastern Conference finals.
John Collins (20) and Trae Young have developed great on-court chemistry, which has helped the Hawks reach the Eastern Conference finals.

“But it's great to see him mature and grow. I will say he's always had that swag. But it's definitely becoming a little bit more mature and understanding certain moments and certain instances where he can impose his will. I feel like he's finding ways to do that more and more now.”

Two summers ago, Collins received an invitation to participate in Kobe Bryant’s exclusive mini-camp. During a film session at the end of the camp, Bryant made note of Collins’ game. “Kobe called me a modern stretch big. I wanted to be, ‘Oh my god, Kobe just called me a modern stretch big,’ ” Collins said. “I was like holy hell, Kobe actually knows me and knows I’m a modern stretch big. It made the camp for me.

"At the end of the camp, Kobe called the agency and said, ‘I really didn’t know too much about Collins before but I’m damn sure happy I invited him to the camp.’ I couldn’t be any happier.”

Collins refrained from social media for most of this season. He sent one tweet in February and has just one Instagram post — that massive one-handed alley-oop dunk over Joel Embiid in Game 6 against Philadelphia in the conference semifinals.

He had the confidence, or nerve, to bring a t-shirt featuring the dunk to Game 7, and after the Hawks eliminated the 76ers, he wore it to the postgame press conference. His troll game got an A-plus.

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Collins is in the fourth year of his rookie contract and is expected to become a restricted free agent who will command a big payday in the marketplace this summer.

“He has not once showed a concern or talked about his contract, or I've (never) felt that he is out there playing for a contract,” McMillan said. “He's not asking for the ball more. He's not complaining when he's not getting the ball. He's been just playing this entire season. I really haven't thought about John's contract. His play is not something that we're seeing because of his contract.

“The kid is just out there. He gives everything he has when he's out on the floor."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Collins isn't Hawks' headliner, but he's vital to playoff success