Confession time. This is the basic order of things that I look for during the first half of just about every Thunder game:
Are the Thunder boxing out on defensive rebounds?
Are the Thunder giving up corner 3-pointers?
How many turnovers did the team have in the 1st quarter?
How does Reggie Jackson and the Thunder bench look?
Probably the last thing that I consider is, "are the Thunder shooting well tonight?" The reason why is because shooting trends can reverse from half to half, so if one team starts out hot over the course of the first 24 minutes, the reverse is just as likely to be true after the halftime break.
Instead, what concerns me the most is whether the Thunder's constant game-deciding traits are evident. Are they keeping the other team off the offensive boards? Are Daequan Cook or Kevin Durant losing their man when he fades to the corner? Is the team playing carelessly? And lastly, is Reggie Jackson going to give the Thunder bench any help?
The reason why Jackson's play is usually the 4th thing I'm watching, which might seem odd since he only logs about 11 minutes per game, is because he is the point guard for a second unit that often spells the difference between the Thunder winning close and the Thunder winning big.
Semi-random question - do you know what you get when you Google the phrase, "Do the Thunder ever full-court press?"
Answer: You get very, very little.
In fact, some of the only scarce evidence that did turn up when I went a-huntin' was a clip made by our friends at Daily Thunder:
You might not recognize everybody in this video because it was taken from over two seasons ago, and it probably feels like that was the last time we actually saw OKC employ a full-court press in a non-end-game-crisis situation. Sometimes Russell Westbrook will break out his Deion Sanders-level one-man press, but for the most part, the team stays away from it. I asked DT's Royce Young if he had any immediate recollection, and he said, "I really don't remember another one where they actually used a traditional press. There have been games with added pressure, just not a 'press.'"
Which brings us back to Reggie Jackson, sitting over there on the bench looking stressed out, trying not to make mistakes or get yelled at. It isn't totally his fault of course; Jackson has landed into a very difficult position in being asked to replace super-sub Eric Maynor and run one of the top three benches in the NBA and basically not screw up a championship run. Unfortunately for Jackson, he isn't quite ready to do that yet. If you ask the basic question, "what is Jackson good at?" I'm not sure you come up with an answer. It isn't scoring (3.5 ppg, 33% from field), 3-point shooting (23.5%), assists (1.2 apg) or on-court performance (the only negative +/- of rotation players). He is not yet an impact player.
One of the biggest challenges for a head coach is how to utilize his role players so that he extracts the most out of them. Phil Jackson is one of the more underrated coaches in this regard; sure, he coached some of the greatest talent in NBA history, but he also had a remarkable way about getting the most out of players who hardly ever contributed anything else in any other situation they were in (See: Devon George, Brian Shaw, Luc Longley, Bobby Hansen, Stacy King). When I see Reggie Jackson not really excelling at anything, I see it as a dual function of his not playing well, but also because coach Scott Brooks has yet to put him in a situation where he can succeed.
The Celtics' Rajon Rondo missed eight games this season due to injury. During his time out and with the Celtics' season teetering, a 2nd year guard named Avery Bradley made the most of his opportunity. However, Bradley didn't do it by imitating Rondo, but by playing an aggressive defensive game that helped the C's to a 6-2 record while Rondo was out. Bradley committed to playing tough on-the-ball defense from baseline to baseline. In the Celtics' most dominant defensive effort of the season, beating Orlando 87-56 and holding the Magic to only 20 second-half points, Bradley demoralized the Magic PG. Bradley's PG counterpart Jameer Nelson became so frustrated with Bradley's pressure that Bradley said that Nelson begged him to back off:
"I looked at him and he kept telling me throughout the game... 'don't pick me up.' And that's when I knew that if I brought pressure, he didn't want nothing to do with it."
Bradley helped his team crush the spirits of Nelson and the Magic because of his baseline to baseline defensive pressure, which materially altered the Magic offense and galvanized his own team's defensive effort.
Back to Jackson. He isn't scoring the ball, he isn't setting up people offensively, and he is struggling to manage the team's offense. What is left? Ask Avery Bradley. It is defensive play. It is play that does not require a single shot attempt, is not hindered by a bad offensive set, and can work against some of the most seasoned veterans. Jackson has a great build for defense. He is low to the floor, quick, strong, and has a freakish seven foot wingspan that enables him to challenge the dribble and get into passing lanes.
We know that Brooks doesn't use the full-court press. However, I have to wonder, is there an opportunity there for him to use Reggie and his raw physical tools to have a meaningful impact on the game? To just tell Jackson, "Don't worry about points, assists, or setting up the perfect pick and roll. Just go out there and lock up their PG for 94 feet"? At the very worst, Jackson would slow down the other team for an extra 4-6 seconds, which becomes huge when a team only has 24 seconds to get off a shot.
At best? You get a veteran PG begging an unknown player to stop guarding him in the backcourt. You might get a rookie who finally builds some confidence because he's having a positive impact on the bottom line. You might finally get a defense that is engaged as soon as the ball is in play.
That takes us to Phase Two.
Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson are pressuring the ball in the back-court. The 6'5" James Harden and 6'10" Kevin Durant are playing at medium depth covering large chunks of the floor, watching the ball move up the court and waiting for a lazy pass to flutter by. Serge Ibaka is sitting back defending his own rim ready to challenge any shooter that might break free into the front-court. A dangerous OKC full-court press is sitting latent, waiting to be applied, and spearheaded by two superfreak guards ready to pressure everything in the front-court.