Reggie Jackson tries to steady Thunder without Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

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BOSTON – Reggie Jackson is the last player remaining in the Thunder’s locker room, and the team’s final bus is scheduled to leave in a few minutes.

He frantically throws items into his shaving kit. He grabs his hoodie, clumsily knocking its hanger onto the floor.

Then, he reaches for the top shelf of his locker.

“Got my baby,” Jackson said as he clutches his basketball.

Growing up, basketball helped Jackson, the son of an Air Force officer, find his way while moving between Italy, England, North Dakota, Georgia, Florida and Colorado. Now, those frequent moves are helping Jackson – at one of the NBA’s most interesting crossroads – find his way in basketball.

Jackson was the only player last season to start 40 games and come off the bench in 40 games, including the playoffs, but that understates the volatility of his role. He has played point guard shooting guard. He has played with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and without those two stars. He has been asked to lead and asked to follow.

If navigating these ever-changing roles weren’t enough, Jackson is preparing to become a free agent next summer, his first chance at a monster NBA payday.

“I think moving has really helped,” Jackson said. “I never really know what tomorrow is going to bring, so it makes it easy for me to just go out there and just work as hard as I can to be the best player I can. Then, whatever circumstance I’m thrown in, I just try to go out there and perform to the best of my ability.”

Lately, the circumstances have meant playing without Durant and Westbrook, both whom aren’t expected back until next month as they rehab from injury. In their absence, Jackson is leading Oklahoma City with 22.8 points and 7.5 assists per game.

He’s filling the role he always envisioned for himself: starting in the NBA.

“I came out and said I wanted to be a starter, so I have to take this opportunity head on,” Jackson said.

At times, the adjustment has been rocky. In Jackson’s first game of the season, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka froze him out after he played selfishly.

“Reggie can play. He can flat out play, Perkins said. “I think the thing that Reggie has to learn is how to make other people better.”

Oklahoma City is scoring just 99.5 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the court. Though that’s better than when he sits, the mark would rank in the league’s bottom 10.

Still, it’s unfair to blame Jackson for all the Thunder’s offensive problems. Even beyond Westbrook and Durant, they’re missing several players due to injury, and Jackson has a larger – positive – sample on his résumé. Last season, Oklahoma City scored a respectable 106.8 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on and Westbrook off the court.

Give Jackson a decent supporting cast, and the results could turn quickly. With Anthony Morrow seeing extended minutes for the first time this season after injury, the Thunder played their best offensive game last night in a 109-94 win over the Celtics, posting an offensive rating of 118.9.

Jackson, who had 28 points and eight assists, made good on Boston coach Brad Stevens’ pregame fears of the Oklahoma City point guard crashing into the paint. Jackson shot 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, and he matched that inside game with strong 3-point shooting, including this deep bomb to end the third quarter.

Even more impressive that that buzzer beater, at least in the long term, was Jackson’s interactions with Steven Adams a few minutes earlier.

Before the game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained Jackson’s role while Westbrook and Durant sit.

“Continue to lead as that point guard,” Brooks said. “That’s the job of a point guard. It’s to be an extension on the floor of the coach, and he’s done a good job with that.

In that same media session, Brooks also emphasized getting center Steven Adams more involved offensively.

Jackson took care of that by throwing Adams and alley-oop and then setting him up for another good look at the basket. When Boston called timeout, Jackson got in Adams face to hype him up.

“I’m a point guard. That’s my job, to be a coach on the floor,” Jackson said, echoing his coach’s pregame comments. “I was just in his to let him know keep going.”

Can Jackson, who knows his role will change again soon, keep going?

When Durant and Westbrook return, Jackson will return to being a third (or maybe fourth behind Ibaka) option. He’ll get better shots but less of them, and he’ll have fewer opportunities with the ball in his hands.

These are his final opportunities to prove to other teams, not only that he can be a starting point guard, but that he’s worth the huge offer sheet necessary to pry him from Oklahoma City. Whether or not Jackson actually wants to leave the Thunder to start elsewhere – which he reportedly does – it’d be nice to have the option.

For the Thunder, who committed not to trading Jackson  like Harden when they couldn’t agree to an extension with him, a dangerous and costly standoff could lurk ahead.

Jackson, joining Daequan Cook and Robert Swift, is slated to become just the franchise’s third player on a rookie-scale contract to become a restricted free agent since Sam Presti became general manager in 2007. Everyone else either signed an extension (Ibaka, Westbrook, Durant and Thabo Sefolosha), was traded (Eric Maynor, James Harden, Lazar Hayward, Cole Aldrich, D.J. White, Byron Mullens, Jeff Green, Johan Petro and Delonte West) or was waived (Mouhamed Sene) before getting that far.

Obviously, Jackson’s negotiations will be much higher stake than Cook’s and Swift’s. The Thunder, who already have $63,569,558 in committed salary for next season plus whatever they agreed to pay Josh Huestis, will carefully consider the luxury-tax implications of keeping Jackson.

What team will Jackson play for? What position will he play? Will he start?

The answers, total mysteries for next season, are only slightly clearer for the rest of this season.

After a childhood of not knowing where he’d live, Jackson is taking the uncertainty in stride.

“I can only deal with today,” Jackson said. “Life is day by day. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m not worried about.”

Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.

 

Report: NBA’s minor league won’t allow potentially eligible college players

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USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy haven’t played this season due to the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky before his freshmen season started to train for the NBA draft.

But they’re all potentially eligible to play college basketball again someday.

So, they can’t play in the NBA’s minor league.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

That ineligibility stems from a rule that prevents players who were enrolled in college during an academic calendar year from being offered a contract in the same season, unless they have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA with no opportunity of being reinstated (as was the case with P.J. Hairston in 2013).

“We’re not looking to compete with college basketball for their players,” a G League source said. “The NBA, specifically NBA lawyers, are concerned about the optics of NCAA players being disgruntled with minutes or coaching decisions and leaving college with the hopes of joining the G League. This is a blanket rule unfortunately that applies to all players. Like all of our rules, we are open to revisiting them if needed, but at the moment any player that was enrolled in a college this season is ineligible to play in our League.”

NBA executives and scouts are griping because they can’t evaluate these prospects in games. I don’t care about that.

This is an affront to capitalism. The basis of our economy should be competition, and the NBA is handing the NCAA – a cartel – a monopoly in this level of basketball. And it’s the workers (players) who lose.

So what if a freshman is disgruntled with his minutes and wants to turn pro during the season? He can’t join the NBA due to the age minimum. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to at least enter the NBA’s minor league, for which he’s old enough? We should trust him to manage his future, not protect the almighty college coach from facing consequences to his rotation.

I don’t know whether or not the NBA and NCAA colluded, but the NBA’s stance is the exact one it would take if it colluded. The NBA has worked to improve the quality of play in its minor league by increasing salary to compete against foreign leagues for players. It’s strange to just willingly take a backseat to college basketball when there’s a great opportunity to compete for top talent.

The players could legally challenge the policy, but they’ll be eligible for the NBA draft in June, and there’s risk in upsetting a potential future employer. And would anything be decided quickly enough in court to matter for the challenging player?

Players like Melton, Bowen, Wiley, Purifoy and Robinson aren’t allowed to let the market set their compensation as college basketball players, because NCAA schools have colluded to cap wages. Those players aren’t allowed to seek employment in the comparable American professional league, because that league doesn’t want to compete with the NBA.

It’s a travesty for capitalism and these workers.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safety

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?