After forcing a stop on a James Harden isolation late in the game last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder were only down three with 16.4 seconds left. They had a very real chance to tie the score and force an overtime against the (previously) 8-1 Houston Rockets.
But the resulting play out of the timeout was a complete dud. In the official play-by-play, it shows up as "Reggie Jackson misses 28-foot three-pointer," coming only six seconds after the timeout. In reality, the distance was the least of Jackson's problems. The shot he took was a simple pull-up jumper, thrown up with Dwight Howard closely contesting. Good luck connecting on this look often:
Let's rewind a bit, and see how they got there. Scott Brooks is often criticized for bland play-calling, and it's not the first time we've seen a dispiriting hero-ball look on a clutch possession from this team. But I don't think even Brooks would have green-lighted a Jackson hero-ball play with the game on the line. My suspicion is this was Jackson going rogue.
The inbound set for this play featured 'elevator doors' movement, where a player cuts between two teammates who close up that space immediately after, creating a small wall for the cutter's defender and 'closing the doors,' so to speak. In this case, Jackson was the cutter, after having run an initial loop to create space from Patrick Beverley.
Beverley was absolutely eaten up by Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, leaving Jackson with some space at the top of the arc for a moment. Trevor Ariza's length ends up being key here, as he covers the inbounding Jeremy Lamb. Because the passing lane to Jackson is obstructed by Ariza's long arms, it forces Jackson to run off the arc to receive the ball, killing the threat of a quick catch-and-shoot and eventually allowing Dwight Howard time to actually commit to switching on to Jackson.
While the elevator doors inbound set could've freed up a shot, the Thunder also should've had a an actual half-court set in place as the contingency plan – or it could've even been the primary plan. It's unclear what was supposed to happen next. What did happen is Jackson saw Howard on him, evidently a mismatch, and pulled the trigger after two size-up dribbles. (Allow me to complain here about the prevailing tendency of 'attacking' a mismatch by jacking a jumper off the bounce against a sagging big, which is actually just efficient defense in the end.)
You know how that ends, with an ill-advised shot and a miss that the Rockets are able to reel in with five seconds still left on the clock. The Thunder could only foul and watch as Harden drilled one of two free throws to put the game out of reach.
I have zero clue exactly what was drawn up in the huddle. In theory, it's possible that Brooks really did want to leave it to Jackson's hands after the elevator doors entry, in which case we should really be condemning Brooks as well as Jackson.
But I don't think that's likely for a few reasons. Obviously, one is that I don't think Brooks is an idiot. In way of more substantial evidence, though, the Thunder didn't exactly look prepared to clear out for a Jackson isolation.
It looked more like the Thunder were ready to set up some sort of pick-and-roll, perhaps a horns pick-and-roll, or hand-off (although much rarer in late-game situations) than they were to clear up space for Jackson to attack. In your conventional hero-ball situation, you usually wouldn't have two bigs at the elbows clogging up driving lanes. For comparison, here's a Durant hero-ball look from last year (and you may remember it!):
Notice here: the floor spacing, and the derived threat of Durant actually being able to drive left or right without people in his way. (Moot point in the end, because he just pulls up for the game-winner.)
The final play against the Rockets just seems more like a scenario where Jackson erroneously thinks he has a decent look, and fires an early shot off. If there's one thing that we definitely know about him, it's that the guy certainly isn't lacking in confidence.
At any rate, the shot proves to be a terrible look. There seems to be enough space between Howard and Jackson for Jackson to get a shot off, but Howard doesn't have the reach of your standard point guard. His arms are longer and he's much taller to begin with, so the space between their bodies gets eaten up a whole lot faster when Howard contests Jackson's shot. It's not a good look.
It amounts to another disappointing defeat, and one that tastes all the more bitter after how close the depleted Thunder came to knocking off one of the NBA's hottest teams right now. Their lack of talent is apparent, with Jackson now being the player to take the last shots in these games. Against Houston, it looked he was too eager to be the man.