Explaining Reggie Jackson's importance to the Thunder's post-Russell Westbrook offense

USA TODAY Sports

With Russell Westbrook sidelined, Reggie Jackson takes on added importance in the Thunder's offense. He will be ignored often so teams can double-team Durant. We look at how he adjusted to those situations in Monday's Game 4 in Houston.

If the first two games of the post-Russell Westbrook era are any indication, this is what we've learned about the Oklahoma City Thunder:

1. They have fully embraced "Kevin Durant, point forward."

2. They are not going away from many of the sets that brought them here, especially the 1-3 and 3-1 pick and rolls. (The former is broken down here.)

Neither of these things are especially surprising. It's hard for any coach to radically change his playbook in the middle of a playoff run, so expecting anything more than small tweaks to Oklahoma City's offense is expecting too much. But the sheer simplicity of the Thunder's post-Westbrook offense requires certain players to raise their games to fill the roles that healthy players once filled.

This is especially true for Reggie Jackson. The second-year point guard from Boston College is taking Westbrook's spot in the starting lineup, which means he's also occupying Westbrook's role in those 1-3 and 3-1 pick-and-roll sets. When he's not, he's spotting up off Durant's offense, much like Westbrook occasionally did when the Thunder's play call was Durant-centric.

WELCOME TO LOUD CITY: Game 4 grades

The problem? Because he's not Westbrook, teams won't respect him as much and will load up on Durant to try to limit his effectiveness. The only way for Jackson to solve that dilemma is to turn himself into a threat, whether it's as a shooter, driver or cutter. Only then will teams at least think for an extra second about leaving him.

Jackson's work in this regard was a mixed bag in Monday's Game 4. There were possessions where he did an excellent job of attacking. There were others, though, where he was not aggressive and either took himself out of the play or settled for jumpers, justifying the Rockets' decision to consistently double-team off him.

Let's start with pick and rolls. The Rockets paid little attention to the threat of Jackson when he was the ball-handler in plays involving Durant, which is understandable. To account for that, though, Jackson needs to aggressively attack in straight-line drives. This is how J.J. Barea took advantage of teams' coverages on Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 playoffs.

Here's an example of Jackson doing the right thing in the first quarter. Francisco Garcia, defending Durant, has his back to Jackson on this play, paying him little respect.

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Jackson needs to attack here and he does beautifully, making a straight-line drive to the basket to get by his man, Patrick Beverley, as he recovers from Durant's screen.

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The Rockets converge and force a difficult floater, but this is a good thing. Jackson can make that shot, as he does here, and if he does this consistently, he can use that attention to find open shooters.

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A pass out may have been a better play, but the process was sound. Anytime Jackson can draw three defenders to him, he has succeeded. Here's the play in real time.


But Jackson wasn't always so aggressive as a threat. Sometimes, he was prone to taking a "banana" route, which means he curved out rather than attacking in a straight line. That hurts him on this first-quarter play when the Rockets deny Durant.

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It is true that James Harden is there to contest a drive, and it's also true that the play clearly calls for Durant to get the ball, but that still doesn't excuse Jackson here. He has to force Harden to make a decision, and he has to draw attention to the defense in some way to prevent them from overloading on Durant.

Instead, Jackson holds the ball well beyond the three-point line and allows the defense to not worry about him.

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Durant can't get the ball, and Jackson takes a long time before deciding to ad-lib a side pick and roll with Serge Ibaka that ends with this shot. Ibaka hits it, but it's a difficult attempt that won't go in often.

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Here's the play in real time:


There was also this critical play late in the fourth quarter where Jackson settled for a long jumper instead of attacking. Once again, Durant's defender -- this time, Chandler Parsons -- is not even looking at Jackson when Durant sets this screen.

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Jackson has an opportunity to drive in a straight line by Parsons and get into the teeth of the defense. Instead, he curved outside again.

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That all leads to him settling for a long jumper that would be an OK attempt if he was a good perimeter shooter. But Jackson has hit just 23 percent from downtown on the year, and he's much more effective driving to the hoop. This is a shot the Rockets will gladly let him take, especially down two in a close game in the fourth quarter.

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Here's the play in real time:



***

Jackson's off-ball work was better, though there's still some room for improvement. The Rockets consistently double-teamed using his man when Durant was in isolation situations, and Jackson had some moments where he attacked those plays well.

Here's a perfect example from early in the fourth quarter. Beverley has left Jackson in the corner to help on a Durant drive.

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Durant eventually kicks the ball to Jackson in the corner, but rather than taking the jump shot, Jackson makes a play, pump-faking Beverley and driving.

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Jackson gets to the elbow, and he could settle for a mid-range jumper. Instead, he spots an open Nick Collison and makes a beautiful pass to him underneath the hoop. Beverley can only rotate down and foul Collison.

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Here's the play in real time:


Jackson also showed his value as a cutter on this second-quarter set. This time, Durant has the ball on the left wing. The Rockets, as they did all game, double-teamed him right away.

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But rather than just stand there, Jackson cuts to the basket, taking Beverley with him.

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In this way, Jackson has made himself a threat. The defense doesn't have to worry about him 30 feet from the hoop, but they absolutely do need to worry about him if he's in the paint. That cut opens up a flare screen by Ibaka on Harden that frees Kevin Martin for a wide-open three.

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Martin missed, but this is a shot the Thunder will take anytime. Here's the play in real time:


Jackson wasn't perfect, though. Occasionally, he was too passive when the ball came to him. On this play, he is wide open thanks to the Rockets' double-team and a Kendrick Perkins backscreen.

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There are a lot of things Jackson could do here, but he instead looks immediately to pass to Thabo Sefolosha in the corner. While his unselfishness is nice, it was the wrong read in this case. Parsons has the pass read and is able to recover to Sefolosha quickly.

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Sefolosha makes a quick pass back to Jackson, but by now, Beverley has recovered. Rather than try to attack Beverley's closeout with a shot fake, Jackson launches a three -- again, not his strength -- and misses.

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Here's the play in real time:


***

As long as Jackson is going to be used like Westbrook in these sets, he needs to attack like Westbrook. The Thunder design these sets and position players on the floor as such because they know Westbrook tilts defensive attention away from Durant with his aggressive style. The only way for the Thunder to be able to compensate while running the same kind of basic sets is for Jackson to do the same. Sometimes, he did that in Game 4. Sometimes, he didn't. There's room for optimism for Thunder fans, and there's room to acknowledge that Jackson still can get better.

As the Thunder go forward, they will surely add -- and already have added -- some small tweaks to figure out new ways to compensate for Westbrook's absence. Fundamentally, though, they need Jackson to approximate Westbrook's role. Jackson will never be as talented, as fast or as explosive as Westbrook, but he has enough skill to make himself a threat. He just needs to maintain the right mindset to take advantage of those skills.

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