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.”

Oklahoma state Rep. threatens to increase Thunder’s taxes for kneeling during national anthem

Oklahoma City Thunder kneel during national anthem
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The Oklahoma City Thunder – like all NBA teams (minus a few individuals) – kneeled during the national anthem.

That powerful protest calls attention to racism, particularly through police brutality. It is highly patriotic to work toward ending those shameful practices. Though some have distorted the underlying message, the protests have largely worked. In the years since Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, Americans have developed a heightened sensitivity to racism and police brutality.

Of course, there are still many opponents of anthem kneeling. The demonstration causes a visceral reaction (which is also why it has been so effective). At this point, it’s hard to stand out among the critics of anthem kneeling who keep making the same, tired arguments.

Oklahoma state representative Sean Roberts found a way.

Roberts, via Oklahoma’s News 4:

“By kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, the NBA and its players are showing disrespect to the American flag and all it stands for. This anti-patriotic act makes clear the NBA’s support of the Black Lives Matter group and its goal of defunding our nation’s police, its ties to Marxism and its efforts to destroy nuclear families.

If the Oklahoma City Thunder leadership and players follow the current trend of the NBA by kneeling during the national anthem prior to Saturday’s game, perhaps we need to reexamine the significant tax benefits the State of Oklahoma granted the Oklahoma City Thunder organization when they came to Oklahoma. Through the Quality Jobs Act, the Thunder is still under contract to receive these tax breaks from our state until 2024.

Perhaps these funds would be better served in support of our police departments rather than giving tax breaks to an organization that supports defunding police and the dissolution of the American nuclear family.”

This is outrageous.

It’s outrageous that the Thunder get such a targeted tax break. The franchise is a private company that should succeed or fail based on its own merits. While it’s easy for NBA fans (like readers of this site) to get caught up in the league, professional basketball isn’t actually important for the greater good.

It’s outrageous that a company’s tax status could depend on how its employees exercise their freedom of expression. The First Amendment still exists.

Ultimately, Roberts almost certainly doesn’t have the power to do what he’s threatening. This is grandstanding for political gain. It gets Roberts into national headlines and little else. Mission accomplished, I guess.

So, Roberts builds a reputation as another big-government politician – someone who wants to use the heavy hand of government to dissuade free expression.

NBA referee Brent Barnaky explains standing for the national anthem

NBA referee Brent Barnaky
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Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, Heat big Meyers Leonard and Spurs coaches Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon drew plenty of attention for standing during the national anthem while nearly all NBA players, coaches and referees kneeled.

Referee Brent Barnaky also stood.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

This isn’t much of an explanation. Nor does it need to be. Barnaky explained that he wasn’t countering the message of kneeling players (opposing racism, particularly through police brutality). That’s sufficient for Barnaky to maintain his neutral positioning – important for an official.

For decades, nearly everyone stood for the national anthem. For many people, that was just about following norms. Even NBA players espousing social-justice messaging previously stood for the national anthem.

But Colin Kaepernick’s brave defiance caused some people to thoughtfully consider their national-anthem posture. So, while many people continued to stand for the national anthem because that’s just was done, some made deliberate choices based on their own values. Sometimes, that led to kneeling. Sometimes, that led to standing.

The thoughtful standers blended into the crowd… until kneeling became widespread in the NBA. Now, they’re the noticeable outliers within the league.

It can take courage to go against the grain. I commend Barnaky for that – and for voicing his support for social justice and peaceful protest.

Barnaky made a personal choice that can stand alone. It doesn’t undermine what anyone else is doing.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer and Thunder’s Billy Donovan win Coach of Year from peers

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Thunder coach Billy Donovan
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The Bucks (high) and Thunder (low) entered the season on near-opposite ends of the pressure spectrum. Despite their radically different situations, both teams have experienced success this season for a common reason:

They were well-coached.

National Basketball Coaches Association release:

Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan are the 2020 recipients of the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced today.

The Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award recognizes the dedication, commitment and hard work of NBA Head Coaches and is presented annually to a Head Coach who helps guide his players to a higher level of performance on the court and shows outstanding service and dedication to the community off the court. It honors the spirit of Michael H. Goldberg, the esteemed long-time Executive Director of the NBCA, who set the standard for loyalty, integrity, love of the game, passionate representation and tireless promotion of NBA coaching. It is unique in that it is the only award voted upon by the winners’ peers, the Head Coaches of all 30 NBA teams. This year’s voting was based on games played from the start of the 2019-20 regular season through games played on March 11.

The depth of coaching excellence in the NBA is reflected in this year’s voting as 8 Head Coaches received votes. In addition to Budenholzer and Donovan, the following Coaches also received votes: Taylor Jenkins, Nate McMillan, Nick Nurse, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens and Frank Vogel.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was third in the race — and just one vote away from creating a three-way tie, sources said.

This is not the main Coach of the Year. That’s voted on by media and will be announced later. This in a new award created by coaches a few years ago.

Nurse remains favorite for the NBA’s recognized Coach of the Year. (He was our unanimous choice.) It’s surprising he didn’t win this award. But it’s also easy to see how fellow coaches would be reluctant to honor an up-and-comer who supplanted Dwane Casey, a coach beloved by his peers and who won this award while getting fired by the Raptors in 2018.

That shouldn’t take away from Budenholzer and Donovan, though. Both had strong seasons.

After turning the Bucks into an elite team last season – winning this award and the NBA’s official Coach of the Year – Budenholzer has Milwaukee looking even stronger this season. The Bucks’ defense is historically dominant, and their role players fit so well around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Donovan got dealt a tricky hand – an all-time great point guard in Chris Paul who’s past his peak but still in his prime and a point guard of the future in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Donovan made it work while squeezing in another point guard in Dennis Schroder. Donovan’s versatility remains an asset for Oklahoma City.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.