OKLAHOMA CITY — Just when it seemed the Thunder must be snake-bit, Reggie Jackson‘s right ankle having turned so dramatically to the outside that it appeared to touch the floor, there he was chasing down a loose ball at the sideline and tossing an alley-oop to Kevin Durant.
Jackson said he expects to be back in the starting lineup for Thursday’s Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. That’s significant news for Oklahoma City, which has been on quite a roll since Jackson and Serge Ibaka joined the starting lineup in Game 3, helping to turn a series that was all San Antonio Spurs.
“It’s not really a big deal,” Jackson said after Tuesday’s trouncing of the Spurs. “No excuse. I think a lot of people about this time have a bum ankle or a ding-up. Just play through it.”
Playing through it hardly seemed possible after watching the replay multiple times. And even after the game as the typically feisty Jackson gingerly walked in shower shoes, it seemed the real damage might not be discovered until the morning.
But he seems to have escaped that trap.
“He’s feeling pretty good,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after a light team workout Wednesday. “He will get treatment throughout the day and then [Thursday], but he’s feeling pretty good today.”
Brooks said Ibaka is continuing to progress and has shown no ill-effects from playing in Games 3 and 4. He missed Games 1 and 2 with a Grade 2 calf strain that the team initially said would keep him out for the remainder of the playoffs.
Less than four minutes into Tuesday’s Game 4, Jackson drove to the basket. He planted his right foot on top of defender Danny Green‘s shoe and his ankle bent downward so far it wouldn’t have been surprising to see bone break flesh.
Jackson hopped all over the floor, flailing his arms in desperate hope of getting any one of the three referees to stop the game action. When the whistle finally blew, an agonizing Jackson hopped on his left leg to the baseline near the Thunder’s bench and crumpled to the floor.
He headed to the locker room, but returned to the bench and then started the second quarter in what seemed at the time to be an admirable, but unrealistic gut-check of his toughness. In the opening 1:25, Jackson missed a reverse layup, misfired a jumper, committed a turnover and then, again, limped off the floor.
“I liked Reggie coming back and trying to make another effort,” Brooks said. “It was a little too sore. I decided to rest him.”
Jackson’s night figured to be over, until he was back on the floor warming up with the team prior to the start of the season half. He would play more than eight minutes in the third quarter before Brooks, with the Thunder in control of the game, decided to rest him for the entire fourth.
“I would’ve played the entire game if I had to,” Jackson said. “I’d have found a way.”
No need on that night, but the fight is hardly over. Brooks has turned to Jackson as a replacement for slumping shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, who has not played a minute since being benched before Game 3. Jackson played a team-high 37 minutes in that game and posted 15 points, five assists and four rebounds.
He and Ibaka have transformed a decidedly defensive starting lineup, with only Durant and Russell Westbrook as scoring threats, into a faster, attacking offense.
Jackson, 24, is another example of the Thunder’s researched drafting and player development. They drafted Jackson out of Boston College with the 24th pick in 2011. He averaged 11.1 mpg as a rookie with James Harden still on the team, and then just 14.2 mpg last year until he was called upon in the playoffs to replace injured Russell Westbrook.
Before that season, Jackson acknowledged, he began to doubt his ability to cut in the NBA. The playoffs boosted his confidence as he logged more than 30 mpg, but ultimately couldn’t help OKC get out of the second round.
Now he says he knows he belongs. After practice the day before Game 3, the very durable Jackson seemed pleased with his progress, but also sensed just how fragile a player’s body can be during the postseason.
“Hopefully, God-willing,” Jackson said, “I can stay healthy.”
It appears, a scare and some pain notwithstanding, he has.