February 10, 2014

Billings Stalking Grant's NLL Points Record

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Garrett Billings has 44 points in six game, a pace that would break John Grant Jr's NLL single-season points record. (Larry Palumbo)

Garrett Billings of the Toronto Rock will shatter the single-season NLL points record if he stays healthy and continues to score at his current pace.

Staying healthy is key. Just ask Adam Jones. The Colorado Mammoth star was on a record pace, too, before separating a shoulder.

Billings got off to a slow start this season but has come on like gangbusters. He scored six goals and assisted on six in helping the Rock demolish the visiting Philadelphia Wings 20-10 last Saturday night and now has 44 points in six games. That's a league-best 7.33 points a game. At this pace, he'd wind up with at least 126 at the conclusion of the regular season.

The single-season record is 116 in 2012 by John Grant Jr. of the Mammoth, which eclipsed the 115 by Buffalo's John Tavares in 2001. Next in line in the record book both with 114 are Billings in 2012 and the NLL Hall of Fame's Gary Gait in 2002.

The record was made to be broken when the schedule was expanded to 18 from 16 games this season, and Billings has the best shot at it so far. Closest to his 7.33 points a game are Calgary's Shawn Evans and Philadelphia's Jordan Hall, who check in at 6.0 points a game to date. Toronto's Stephan Leblanc is next with 5.67 points a game.

Grant has a league-high 45 points, one more than Billings, but has played three additional games. He's been getting 5.0 points a game, as was Jones before going down, Vancouver's Rhys Duch and Rochester's Cody Jamieson.

So, if the record falls, one off the eight players above will do it, although the pace Billings is setting is most impressive.

The lopsided win over the Wings was the result of the biggest offensive splurge for the Rock since a 21-7 win over the long-ago-defunct New York Saints on March 15, 2002.

''I was sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter saying to myself, 'We haven't had one of these in the five years I've been here','' said Billings. ''It's nice when the ball jumps in for you.''

After struggling through his first couple of games, Billings has amassed 26 points in his last three games.

''It was such a tough start to the year,'' he says. ''That was rust. You sit around for a few months before the season starts and when it does start you're not going game speed. Now that we've got that speed back, it's all just reaction out there. You don't overthink things, you just play.''

Former Rock rightie Blaine Manning is the assistant coach in charge of the offensive and he's got a lot to work with: Billings, who scores many of his goals with laser-like overhand shots from the 20- to 30-foot range, crease crasher Kasey Beirnes and playmaker Rob Hellyer man the right side; and captain Colin Doyle and Josh Sanderson, who are second and fourth, respectively, on the career NLL points list, are on the left side along with Stephan Leblanc, who darts into traffic to score from the heart of the opponent's defense.

''There's not much to say when you have a group like we do,'' Billings replied when asked what Manning is telling the six forwards. ''It's just, 'Keep going, go hard', pump guys tires when they need it, and the ball is going to go into the net.''

Constant and quick ball movement is important to them.

''We have an uncanny chemistry,'' says Billings. ''That makes it so much easier when we can rip the ball back and forth like we do. It's very hard to defend. We're at our best when the ball doesn't sit on one side. We exploited that (against the Wings).''

The Rock would have scored more than 20 had they not reeled back the attack in the fourth quarter.

''Tonight was a prime example of everyone contributing,'' Beirnes said afterwards. ''It's easy to stop one person on a team. It's tough to stop five when they're going all the time. We were all on our game.''

Billings possesses one of the hardest and most accurate shots in pro lacrosse. It's a big reason why he's scored 30 or more goals in his four previous seasons and why he's on pace for his third straight with 100 or more points. He was just a kid when he started working on it growing up in Langley, British Columbia.

''The president of Langley minor lacrosse, Barry Dennison, he'd always tell me to work on accuracy: shoot and get the power later,'' Billings explains. ''I'd always try the opposite, shoot as hard as I possibly could. It was an ongoing joke between us.

''I can't attribute (the shot) to just one thing. I put a lot of work into my shot through my whole career. That's really why it's got me to where I am. I've been trying to get my shot as good as possible since I was seven years old.''

''He's got one of the best ones I've seen in a long time,'' says Manning. ''The best thing about it is how quick he can get it off. He catches the ball, winds up and lets it go in a split second. He's a great shooter.''

Toronto is 3-3 with wins at home over Calgary, Vancouver and Philadelphia and road losses in Buffalo, twice, and in Rochester. They lost 12-10 loss in Buffalo before clipping the Wings.

''It'd be nice if we could win like that every night but we all know they're few and far between,'' Doyle said. ''The ball fell for us early and we were able to pull away. It wasn't their best game. We played very well. I'm really happy with the way we played. We were composed and we were successful.''

The first 5,000 fans were given a Billings bobblehead figurine.

''If you find him handsome, you'll like the bobblehead,'' offered Doyle, who had one in his image given away last season.

''They gave me a full head of hair though,'' he added, alluding to Billings' hairless scalp.

But, seriously, the future NLLHOFer is happy to earn assists passing the ball to No. 13.

''He can shoot it with some kind of confidence when he gets going,'' says Doyle. ''You don't see players like that every day, especially with the set of eyes he has. Guys were down on him pretty early because he wasn't scoring and I think he took it to heart.''

Toronto's sixth and most recent NLL championship was won in 2011 when the goaltending of Bob Watson in the triumphant last game of his career proved the difference. Watson is long gone and, as some of the critics say, so are the title hopes of one of the more veteran groups in the league. But teams round the league no better than to write off the Rock.

''We took big, big steps the previous weekend,'' Doyle said as he munched on a slice of pizza in the Rock room last Saturday. ''It didn't matter that we didn't win that game (in Buffalo). It hurt at the time but I felt like we're starting to understand who we are and what we're capable of. If that process continues, we hope by April to be where we want to be.''


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