The streaking Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed far more than their ninth straight victory in Saturday's 113-100 win over the San Antonio Spurs. By beating the reigning conference champs—in their own building, no less—the Thunder have once again grabbed the mantle of Western Conference favorite.
The Spurs sat stars Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan on Thursday night, but were able to beat the talented Golden State Warriors on the road thanks to their excellent bench. On Saturday, with the Spurs' "Big Three" back in the lineup, it was the Thunder bench's turn to shine.
Oklahoma City's reserves were led yet again by emerging point guard Reggie Jackson, who scored 21 points to go with four assists and three rebounds.
While most of the evening's highlights will go to star Russell Westbrook, who led all scorers with 31 points, it was his understudy, Jackson, who came up with the biggest plays of the game.
With Westbrook on the bench in the fourth quarter, the Spurs drew within one possession of the lead at 85-82 and had the ball with a little more than 10 minutes left. That's when Jackson took over with a steal, a fast-break dunk, and an assist to Jeremy Lamb on a three. He capped it off with a jumper of his own. By the time Westbrook checked back into the game, the Thunder's lead was back up to nine, and a crisis had been avoided.
Such inspired performances have become routine for Jackson, who is averaging 12.6 points (on 48.7 percent shooting), 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game this season.
The Thunder have a trio of young stars in Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, but the team has been looking for a spark plug off the bench since James Harden's departure before last season. Jackson is looking like he might just be that guy.
The Kid Everyone Wants to Play With
Westbrook was truly sensational in Saturday's game. Not only was he scoring, but his point guard work drew the praise of Grantland's Zach Lowe.
Sensational game from Westbrook tonight. Really great passing out of the pick-and-roll.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2013
Still, even though his comeback from last April's knee injury has been nothing short of amazing, Westbrook still isn't quite the player he was last season. Coming into Saturday, his shooting and assist percentages were down from last season, while his turnover rate was up, per Basketball-Reference.
That is to be expected, of course. Players need time to hone their game after suffering such a serious injury.
But the Thunder couldn't afford to fall behind in the race for home court in the rugged Western Conference while they waited for Westbrook to regain his form. They needed a player to pick up some of the slack.
And Jackson has responded perfectly. The Thunder now have the best record in the league even with Westbrook performing at less than peak efficiency, due in large part to Jackson's steady hand at the point.
In fact, the data suggest that the Thunder's two frontcourt stars, Durant and Ibaka, play better when Jackson is at the point compared to their stats with Westbrook at the 1.
Those numbers will probably even out as Westbrook gets more playing time. Still, coach Scott Brooks has the option of playing Jackson and Westbrook side by side, as he did in the fourth quarter against San Antonio. The Westbrook-Jackson pairing has looked extremely promising, albeit in limited minutes.
The Thunder Are Back
Oklahoma City caught a terrible break in last season's playoffs when Westbrook went down in the first round. But that injury did give Jackson more playoff minutes, which might prove to be a blessing in disguise in the 2014 postseason.
Jackson's former teammate, Kevin Martin, thought the 2013 postseason was crucial to Jackson's development, per The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater, "In the playoffs, he really showcased under the circumstances that he can really lead an offensive unit. Which you have to do in that second unit. You have to be an offensive-minded player."
Thanks to some savvy player development, the Thunder have not only addressed their key weakness last season—the bench—they have managed to turn it into a strength. The young trio of Jackson, Lamb and rookie Steven Adams have all taken major strides in December. Adams in particular gave the bench a boost against San Antonio's frontcourt, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots in the win.
If anything, the Thunder's biggest problem is now in the starting lineup: center Kendrick Perkins. The normally potent Thunder offense, which scores 106.2 points per 100 possessions, averages only 99.8 points per 100 possessions with Perkins in the lineup, per NBA.com.
But that is a problem for another day. Oklahoma City's roster is loaded. Their point guards combined for 52 points against their chief competitor for the Western Conference title. Reggie Jackson has taken his game to another level, and the Thunder are reaping the benefits.