James Harden is in Houston and Serge Ibaka is out with an injury.
But you’d have a hard time convincing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich that the Big Three in Oklahoma City is lacking a third wheel.
“If anybody watched our games, they watched Reggie Jackson basically be the Spurs killer any time we played them,” Popovich told reporters in advance of Monday’s series opener.
In four meetings with the Spurs this season, Jackson averaged 21.2 points on 68 percent shooting. Besides the league’s MVP — and even including him on a couple occasions — Jackson was the best player on the floor during those games, all Thunder wins.
“He kicked our (tail),” Popovich said after the initial beating, when Jackson scored 14 of his 23 points in a dominant fourth quarter.
“He’s a confident young man,” a frustrated but impressed Popovich said after Jackson’s third San Antonio explosion, a 27-point, eight-assist, no-turnover outing back in January. “He’s taking no prisoners. He’s not deferring to anyone,”
Nationally, Jackson’s offensive talents may remain a bit underrated. But in San Antonio, the capabilities of this third-year guard are well-known.
And with Jackson expected and needed to take a bigger role in this series — stepping into the third banana role on a title contender — there’s little doubt Popovich is concocting some sort of counter. But Jackson’s success is less scheme-related and more personnel-driven.
Stronger and longer, Jackson has powered through and gone by Spurs backup Patty Mills at will in their matchups. When the floor is filled with bench players, OKC has done a great job of identifying the mismatch, spreading the floor and letting Jackson operate.
But even with the other stars in and Mills out of the game, Jackson has remained effective. Against the Spurs, OKC went with a two-point guard lineup a ton, something Brooks is likely to employ plenty in this series.
It gets the Thunder’s three best playmakers on the floor and forces the defensively challenged Tony Parker to pick his poison, guarding either Russell Westbrook or Jackson. More often than not, Parker will take Jackson, a matchup that favors the Thunder.
“Someone once told me if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” Jackson said, with a sly look, when asked if he’d force the issue against a hobbled Parker.
But a heavy dose of Jackson, even against the Spurs, comes with its potential downfalls. The problem — defense and consistency.
All season, Jackson has continually been burned on the other end of the floor — a glaring weakness that was evident in one of those Spurs wins, when Parker put up an easy 37 points.
But, say Kendrick Perkins and Caron Butler, Jackson has been steadily improving his defensive effort. Perkins even said, “Reggie played some of the best defense I’ve seen from him” in that Game 6 closeout over the Clippers. And against Parker and a potentially explosive Mills, Jackson will need to remain engaged.
“Maybe,” Jackson said when asked if his defense was getting better. “People have been telling me that.”
Against the Clippers and Grizzlies, Jackson was streaky. He started both series brutally, going 3-of-19 in the first three Memphis games and 3-of-13 in the first two L.A. ones. But he closed out each series great, averaging 14.5 points on 58 percent shooting in the final four games of both series.
Against the Spurs, he doesn’t have that inconsistent luxury. The absence of Ibaka takes it away. But the appealing sight of the Spurs might render it moot anyway.
“Who knows?” Jackson said when asked if his success against San Antonio was a coincidence. “I think this series will tell us.”