Reggie Jackson is no Russell Westbrook, and that’s not a knock against him. He sure did a pretty good impression on Sunday, though.
The third-year guard exploded for a career-high 27 points on crisp 9-of-12 shooting to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to a decisive 119-96 win over the Celtics. Filling in for the injured Westbrook, who is out until the All-Star break after his third knee surgery in nine months, Jackson made mincemeat of defensive ace Avery Bradley. It was a strong statement for a player who is being expected to do more than just tread water until the star comes back.
Of all the players filling in for stud point guards currently sidelined with injuries — D.J. Augustin for Derrick Rose, Jordan Crawford for Rajon Rondo and Kendall Marshall for Steve Nash, to name a few others — Jackson’s job is the toughest. That’s because, even with Westbrook on the shelf, the Thunder (27-7) maintain the same lofty expectations they have with him healthy. How Jackson responds could make or break Oklahoma City’s title hopes.
That was why Sunday’s performance had to be so encouraging for the Thunder. The Celtics (13-21) may not be the most formidable foe, but Bradley presents problems defensively while Brandon Bass and Jeff Green should be able to hassle Kevin Durant a bit, at least on paper. It was a challenge for the young point guard. He aced it.
It wasn’t just the way Jackson hit every 3-pointer he took or took care of the ball, committing just two turnovers in 31 minutes. It was the way he attacked the hoop when driving lanes opened and forced the Celtics to foul when the defense collapsed. He shot 6-for-9 from the foul line, which turned a merely encouraging performance by Jackson into a career night.
Of course, a career night for Jackson would be just another game for Westbrook. The chasm between the two remains. But showings like Sundays should give the Thunder reason to believe they don’t have to abandon their dreams just because one key player is sidelined.
Facing his former team and his good buddy Durant, Green came out firing. It didn’t go so well. He took six shots in the first 10 minutes, and only two of them went in. In the second quarter, he took two shots, missing them both. By the time the second half arrived, he was literally running headfirst into things.
Green had a scary moment when he had to leave the game late in the third quarter after he ran into Thunder center Steven Adams. Green’s head snapped back against Adams’ chest, and Green stayed on the ground for several minutes. Visions of Friday’s game, which Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson had to leave with a cervical stinger, came to mind.
Green wasn’t gone long, though. He returned early in the fourth quarter and hit the first shot he took, a layup to cut Boston’s deficit to 18 points. OK, so it wasn’t a victorious return, but it did help Green salvage a game that was bordering on disastrous at halftime. Thanks to a perfect third quarter, when he hit all five shots he took, Green finished out the second half with 14 points, giving him 19 in the game on an efficient 8-for-15 from the field.
As go Jared Sullinger and Bass, so go the Celtics. At least, that’s how it has seemed lately. Sullinger and Bass struggled again Sunday, combining for 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting, and Sullinger fouled out. Celtics coach Brad Stevens was forced to use Kris Humphries, who has stepped up whenever his number has been called.
Humphries had 14 points and three rebounds, but the statistic that earned him the most playing time was his three blocks. Stevens was not shy about letting reporters know how he felt about his team’s defense, which let the Thunder shoot 52 percent and score 119 points, the most of any Celtics opponent this season.
“I thought we did a really poor job of helping each other [Sunday] defensively,” Stevens said.
Stevens did not specifically name the worst culprits or single out Humphries for being an exception, but the 21 minutes Humphries played spoke for itself. He earned every second.