Back in late March, I was traveling on my way to New Mexico for spring break vacation. While in the vehicle, I sat in the passenger seat during the afternoon part of the drive. At the time, I was tied to my iPhone because it was the NBA trade deadline date. As I sat reloading Twitter to see if the San Antonio Spurs would make a move, the news finally broke that the Spurs had agreed to send Richard Jefferson to the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Jackson.
Yes Jackson was back in a Spurs uniform and he’s been a major addition to the team in the way his spirit and tough-minded attitude have transitioned both on and off of the court. Jackson is one of the most fearless players in the league today as he takes pride in his defense. He truly believes he can guard any teams best player, as I’ve heard him say in the locker room. Even when he’s not in the game, Jackson is seeing as the Spurs’ main morale booster on the bench, as he’s usually jumping out of his seat and waving a towel to fuel his teammates energy during a run.
In the round one sweep against the Utah Jazz, Jackson looked like he provided just what the Spurs had traded him for. Kawhi Leonard, a rookie, had a quiet first playoff game, and Jackson showed the veteran leadership by picking up the wing position for bulk minute in the series. He was hitting shots, passing to the open man, working in the isolation, and even being used defensively to match-up with bigger players like Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, where he had some success.
Against the Jazz, Jackson averaged 10 points, 24.5 minutes, and shot 53% from three-point range. The best part was that Jackson was able to play minutes either as the guy who would give Leonard a break, the main wing, or even with Leonard at the same time in the series.
So what happened to Jackson when the Los Angeles Clippers came into town? How did he go from producing Jackson-type numbers to Jefferson-type numbers? Was it just a one-series type of deal? Or, will this trend continue with the Oklahoma City Thunder coming into town on Sunday to begin the Western Conference Finals?
Looking at how Jackson performed against the Clippers, you have to consider two elements. 1) Leonard had a great series. 2) The Clippers were a guard heavy team that relied more on quick play from the perimeter which limited Jackson’s play and effectiveness. Against the Clippers, Jackson averaged 1.3 points, 14.8 minutes, 1.2 turnovers, and shot just 33% from three-point range. First, let’s take an in-depth look at the type of series Leonard had.
Leonard went from scoring seven points, logging 20 minutes, and shooting 40% from three-point range against the Jazz, to logging 28.8 minutes against the Clippers and scoring 10 points per game, grabbing 6.5 rebounds, and shooting 50% from three-point range, while also averaging two steals per game.
It was more of a situational series for Leonard’s heavy minutes, and Jackson’s light minutes. Leonard had to guard Caron Butler, sometimes Randy Foye, Eric Bledsoe, and even Chris Paul on possessions. Aside from Butler, the majority of the players mentioned were all guards. You can’t blame Jackson for being built as a defender who can guard the lengthier, stronger swingmen in the league. Leonard has the rare qualities that allow him to guard multiple positions. Leonard’s increased production on offense were another reason he continued to receive more court time against the Clippers.
For Jackson, in the few minutes that he did see on the court, there were some good and bad areas in his play. The good were his continued passing numbers. Jackson logged over three assists in two of the four games in playing such limited minutes. Even if he’s not scoring, Jackson will always be more vital than Jefferson ever was because he’s so fluid in the Spurs’ system and his passing ability is one of the most underrated parts of his game.
The bad area where Jackson didn’t do too well was in his turnovers. Sometimes with his passing, he gets a little too carried away and often overthrows a pass or doesn’t read the defense in the anticipation of the pass. This is a part of Jackson’s game he’s most likely aware of and will fix before or during the Thunder series.
In the Western Conference Finals, I expect Jackson to get more minutes because the Thunder have the NBA’s leading scorer in Kevin Durant. Leonard and Jackson will share the role of trying to limit Durant as much as possible, and both players have the defensive tools in their ability to bother Durant, Jackson with his physical force, and Leonard with his lengthy magnet-like ability.
Jackson’s offense will also be important for this next series, because if he can hit those open threes, find the open man, or take Durant in the post on iso-situations, it makes Durant have to spend some of his energy on defense and not just offense. Both Jackson and Leonard will be key in the next series versus the Thunder, and at times the Spurs may even use both at the same time to limit James Harden and Durant.
It’s true, Jackson had a rough series against the Clippers, but come Sunday late in the first quarter of the opening game against the Thunder, I anticipate Jackson will be making a defensive play or swish for an open three. A player can miss shots, they can make mistakes, but there’s one thing that Jackson has that can’t be stopped, pride.