HOUSTON — Reggie Jackson didn't run from the reality.
In fact, he faced it and accepted responsibility.
“I got to really take pride on defense and work on keeping my man in front of me,” he said.
That comment came moments after Courtney Lee in Memphis' win over the Thunder on Tuesday became the latest starting guard to scorch Jackson.
It's something Jackson has struggled with since taking over for the injured Russell Westbrook on Dec. 27.
Lee joined the likes of Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Deron Williams, Ricky Rubio and Ty Lawson. Each has had tremendous success against Jackson as a starter, either as a slasher, shooter or setup man.
But what happened Tuesday was as bad as things have been.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, apparently fed up with Jackson's defensive struggles, started Thabo Sefolosha on Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. It's a cross-matchup Brooks has used in the past, even with Westbrook healthy, but one Brooks rarely uses to start games.
It didn't work.
Sefolosha neutralized Conley. But Lee then lit up Jackson, scoring 10 of the Grizzlies first 12 points before finishing with a team- and season-high 24.
“Defensively, I was poor tonight,” Jackson said after the game. “I definitely could have made it more difficult. I let him get hot early.”
Though they stopped short of blaming Jackson directly, both Brooks and Thunder forward Kevin Durant called Lee's performance unacceptable.
“Courtney Lee had his way,” Brooks said. “We didn't do a good job of starting the game off on him. Throughout the game, he sprinkled in some big shots. We can't afford for that to happen. They have some really good players. He was the wild card that we didn't want to (get going). He had too many good looks. In a game like this, we can't give a guy that many points.”
Said Durant: “We got to start the game off better. Courtney Lee came out and, I think, he hit his first five shots. And that got them going. We were down 12 to start the game. We can't play uphill, especially on the road. You got to limit your mistakes when you play on the road.”
Jackson seemed genuinely disappointed in his defensive performance and sounded as if he learned something from it.
“I can't start off like that again,” he said. “I just got to lock in from the time we step on the court until the time all zeros strike in the fourth quarter.”
For all the bellyaching about Jackson's perceived struggles since stepping in as the starter, his inconsistent defense has been more troublesome than his offense. He's shooting a slightly lower percentage from the field as a starter and has a higher turnover rate. But in 4.8 more minutes on average as a starter, Jackson is posting nearly identical production as a scorer and rebounder, while averaging 1.2 more assists in the first string.
His shortcomings on defense have come as a shock for two reasons: advanced metrics had showed that Jackson was a quality defender, and Jackson boosted expectations by spending a portion of the preseason fantasizing about how formidable a tandem he and Westbrook could be not on the offensive end but the defensive side of the ball.
Jackson's struggles, though, can partially be explained by his relative inexperience. Despite his strong playoff performance last season, Jackson still has only 13 career regular-season starts. He has yet to face — and thus figure out — more than half the league's starting point guards. A learning curve is to be expected.
Then there's everything else on Jackson's plate.
“He has to do a lot, man,” Durant said. “You got to take that into account. He has to run the team. He has to get everybody involved. He has to make sure he picks and chooses his spots and then come back on the defensive end and know all the rotations at the point guard position, the (shooting) guard and the (small forward).
“You got to give him some credit. He's playing hard. But we just got to keep encouraging him. And we just got to help him out. It's a team. It's not about one-on-one defense. It's team defense.”