HOUSTON — Reggie Jackson stepped gingerly in the Thunder locker room during the early morning minutes of Saturday, favoring an ankle that appeared to be slightly swollen or wrapped in a brace or both beneath his patterned sock as he prepared to board the team charter back to Oklahoma City. But the Thunder’s new starting point guard, fresh off the game of his life so far, did not appear to be tired, and even invited the media to ask a few more questions despite the protests of team handlers.
Maybe Jackson, like Thunder fans previously worried sick after two straight losses, wanted the moment to last a little longer before moving on to the next round. And Jackson, who flashed a toothy grin and a thumbs up when asked about that ankle, deserved it.
It was a moment in the first half during the Thunder’s Game 6, series-ending win over the Rockets in Houston that Jackson showed just how far he’s come since Oklahoma City felt it had to bring in a veteran to replace him last season, effectively announcing to the world that Jackson wasn’t ready. On Friday, though, it was Jackson who waved off Kevin Durant as the shot clock wound down and Durant couldn’t get open. Jackson knifed into the lane for a bucket, calmly jogged back down the court, and set the tone for a season-saving victory on the road in just his fourth career start.
“He’s not a fill-in,” Scott Brooks said after the game of Jackson. “He’s a guy who will continue to lead us and continue to get better as the season goes on.”
Only one game after Durant was perhaps as visibly frustrated as he’s been in his entire career, looking practically alone on the court during a wobbly home loss as his teammates missed baskets and defensive assignments all around him, it was Jackson and the rest of Durant’s supporting cast that finally put the last nail in the Rockets’ coffin.
The man brought into replace Jackson last season was maybe the only guy who played as big of a role in that as he did. Derek Fisher, who seemed like a fitting addition last year but a strange one this season, was an impact player over every one of the court’s 94 feet. The first time he marked James Harden defensively, it was worrisome. By the end of the night, it was clear he needed to guard Harden on every possession. And in between his spectacularly fundamental defensive plays, he found a way to make two-thirds of his shots and wind up a +32 in 27 critical minutes, turning lustful boos from the Houston crowd into halfhearted ones by the time the Rockets’ fate was sealed.
“What I saw tonight was some of the most inspiring play I’ve ever seen in all my playing time and coaching,” Brooks said of Fisher. “The guy laid everything on the line. He’s probably one of the best players in the game.”
That seemed almost laughable just two weeks ago, but no longer. Fisher led the Thunder’s bench mob to finish as the most effective players on the court this side of Jackson and Durant, with three of the four backups finishing at least +20. Kevin Martin, who couldn’t hit the water in the Bricktown Canal from one of the booze cruise boats during Game 5, blistered Houston for 21 first-half points. Nick Collison returned from a bewildering exile for much of the series to grab a team-leading four offensive boards in 22 minutes and help spark Martin’s turnaround with the beautiful two-man game he seems to share with whoever the Thunder’s first guard off the bench may be.
In short, every silly Thunderism about effort and team spirit that generally elicits eye rolls from fans and observers proved to be more than boiler plate platitudes on Saturday night. Maybe the team’s collective fight and willingness to play for each other really is OKC’s backbone, as the Thunder claim it is.
Tip of the cap
As proud as the Thunder should be of themselves after stitching together a team effort that deserves its own spot in Oklahoma City’s growing trophy case of prized wins, the Rockets deserve to feel good about their own postseason as well.
The last time Harden’s team made noise as a No. 8 seed before going down to a more battle-tested opponent, it was his rookie year in Oklahoma City. A precocious Thunder team made the Lakers, future champions, sweat out a tough series before moving on to a more meaningful matchup. The comparison was not lost on Houston’s superstar.
“We were one of the youngest teams in the league at that point. We lost Game 6 at home,” Harden recalled before turning to praise for his new team. “We’ve got a core group of guys that loves to work and loves to win. … The sky is the limit for us.”
The Rockets fun brand of basketball made life tough on Oklahoma City, and started doing so even before Russell Westbrook went down with the injury that will define this Thunder postseason, no matter the outcome. Chandler Parsons has been a revelation, and the young, fun-and-gunning and relentless Rockets deserve the comparisons to the earlier days of the Thunder’s run to Western Conference supremacy.
Houston coach Kevin McHale looked less beaten down after the end of his season than he did after the Rockets dropped Game 3 to drop into an 0-3 hole. And there’s no need to wonder why — this is a team clearly ready to step forward.
“This is the start of a journey for these guys,” McHale said. “They fought hard for me every night.”
With Houston finally behind Oklahoma City, and the unwanted matchup with Harden over, there’s no need for OKC to look back. But the Rockets are certainly looking forward, and the rest of the Western Conference now knows to take them seriously.
Battle on the horizon
The Thunder certainly know to take their next opponent seriously. The Memphis Grizzlies forced OKC into the only Game 7 in its short history two years ago, and now are bringing their bruising brand of basketball back to Bricktown against a shorthanded Thunder team.
But if Game 6 was any indication, maybe team is the operative word. Oklahoma City was searching for a new identity in the days following Westbrook’s injury, and for a large part of three games, it appeared that identity was “shaky” (copyright 2013, Royce White). If the Thunder have finally flipped the switch, the new identity could be practicing the team brand of basketball that is so often preached.
Start by giving credit to the man who has shouldered a lot of criticism whenever OKC falters: Brooks. The Thunder’s coach pulled one of the most un-Brooks moves I’ve seen to date by finally going to a unit other than his starting five to begin the second half. Though the Rockets responded by going on a game-threatening run, you can’t blame it on Kendrick Perkins this time — and Perkins is going to need to see plenty of court time against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Brooks finally pulled some real strings, and the end result was the win.
And to revisit Jackson’s stellar game — surely the most satisfying game of his young career — it’s going to take an awful lot of trust between teammates for the Thunder to get past the Grizzlies, who will likely be favored, and deservedly so, against the Thunder. Jackson credited that trust for helping him have the Game 6 that he did. “(They told me) to be aggressive, to just go out there and be me and have fun, not necessarily be thinking all the time, thinking too much,” Jackson said.
Oklahoma City worked all season to earn home court advantage, and that will be even more critical than expected with Westbrook’s absence. But maybe the rediscovered underdog role, and rediscovered team chemistry, is exactly what the Thunder, and the faithful inside the Peake, needed to get back on track. OKC will need focused efforts from every player on the roster, and every roar of the home crowd to get past the Grizzlies and solidify their status as a Western Conference contender.
To be certain, the Thunder will need exactly what it got on Saturday in Houston: contributions from every corner. Throw in a rabid home crowd and a re-dedication to steady and focused basketball, and a successful defense of the conference crown could be again in the making.