Reggie Jackson embracing the task of saving the Thunder’s season

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Adrian Wojnarowski
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BOSTON – Reggie Jackson still doesn’t own a car. He drives a Hyundai on a sweetheart lease with an Oklahoma City dealership. He’d use a moped, but understands that’s probably a bad idea. He shops for his clothes on the Macy’s and H&M clearance racks, forever searching for the double markdown – red sticker clumped upon red sticker.

Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson had 28 points and eight assists against Boston on Wednesday night. (USA TODAY Sports)
Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson had 28 points and eight assists against Boston on Wednesday night. (USA TODAY Sports)

“I just need to look presentable on the walk from the bus into the arena,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports. “My goal every day, basically, is to not get fined for the dress code. I’ve never needed much.

“I’m a minimalist.”

The minimalist point guard for the minimalist roster. For several more weeks, Oklahoma City must do more with less, and Jackson’s the perfect player to hold together this season. Thrust into one of the NBA’s most pivotal positions, Jackson’s the performer tasked with the biggest burden in building a bridge from playoff possibility to the return of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

On the end of a back-to-back on Wednesday night, Jackson had 28 points, eight assists and only one turnover in the Thunder’s 109-94 victory over the Celtics. He had gone for 29 points and four assists on Tuesday in Milwaukee, but the Thunder lost and these days and weeks are a relentless race against time. The Western Conference is unforgivable, and the Thunder still need to be closer to 50 victories than 40 to reach the playoffs.

“There’s an understanding, deep in back of our minds, that we have to stay afloat, that we have to tread water,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports. “For us, it’s about getting into the playoffs now. The seeding doesn’t matter. If we can get to the playoffs, we’ll be better for this.”

For Jackson, 24, the transformation from sixth man to an impact starter is validating everything that NBA executives and coaches suspected: He could be a star. Jackson turned down a lucrative, rookie contract extension in October, and he’s determined to be a starter in the NBA.

He’s generating a market value that’ll test the Thunder’s resolve in restricted free agency this summer. Every night, executives examine Jackson, and his offer sheet possibilities are climbing into the $13 million to $14 million range. As one Eastern Conference executive told Yahoo Sports: “He’s a bigger Eric Bledsoe – and probably better.”

For now, Jackson’s set those summer scenarios aside, sidestepping free-agency questions to discuss the way in which he’s immersed himself into this season, this spectacular struggle. For Thunder general manager Sam Presti, Jackson is one more prospect he scouted properly, drafted, developed and ultimately has to find a way to retain, even when he’s probably outgrown his role and financial affordability in Oklahoma City.

“All the eyes of my teammates, in all moments, are locked in on me now,” Jackson told Yahoo. “They’re looking for direction. It’s been difficult losing some of these close games, but I couldn’t imagine fighting alongside any other guys. I love that we’re not making excuses. I love this challenge of dealing with the disappointment, the challenge of going to sleep thinking about how I can help my teammates and waking up still thinking the same things: ‘How can we win?’

“I love putting that pressure on myself. I love being relied upon for so much. I love being the leader out there, being the coach’s eyes, be part of the chess game.”

Oklahoma City is 3-6, fighting for its season in November, and Jackson has never been so invigorated, so alive. If he’s the center of the offense for the next several weeks – and something far less once Durant and Westbrook return – he promises this: He’s fully engaged and fully down with the cause.

Jackson is flourishing in the role of leading the Thunder without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. (USA TODAY Sports)
Jackson is flourishing in the role of leading the Thunder without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. (USA TODAY Sports)

There’s a belief that comes with Jackson, an adaptability, born of his childhood as the son of an Air Force officer. From Italy to England, North Dakota to Georgia to the mountains of Colorado, Reggie was the youngest of three brothers, forever finding a way to use basketball as a connector.

“I’d move somewhere, and basketball was a way to become accepted,” Jackson said. “I was shy. I didn’t talk much. But around the playground, in the gym, we could play ball and we could start to talk. And then you could get to know me.”

Jackson turned down the security of the extension offer in October – risking injury this season and loss of value – for ultimately a simple reason: He doesn’t need the financial security as much as he needs his dogged pursuit of becoming an NBA starter, becoming a star. Oklahoma City can match an offer sheet this summer, but that’s a dance that Jackson wants no part of discussing now.

“I am still with the Thunder,” he told Yahoo, “and there are no selfish thoughts when I’m on the floor. I am going to help this team win.”

Jackson knows how he lives, how he values faith over flash, and he never needed Durant and Westbrook down to believe he can be this kind of a player. The stage belongs to Reggie Jackson now, and yet he understands, too: So does so much of the burden of buoying these Thunder, bridging them to Durant and Westbrook and beyond.

“I never expected this [role] to happen here, never wanted it to happen this way,” Jackson said. “But I’ve prepared myself for it. The future is unknown. You never know what’s going to happen. This might be a role I’ve got to get used to.”

Perhaps in Oklahoma City, perhaps beyond. Nevertheless, the minimalist point guard is lording over the Thunder’s minimalist roster and the grind delivers him everything he’s ever wanted in basketball. He’s chasing the playoffs, yes, but he’s never been afraid to tell people he’s chasing greatness, too. He promised everyone that he could do this, and he’s delivering on the deed.

Through it all, the bargain racks and economy cars and this suddenly hellbent playoff pursuit, Jackson does confess to one spending indulgence. “Socks,” he said. “I do like to buy socks, like novelty socks. I have drawers of them.”

Reggie Jackson doesn’t need much in his life, but he did need a basketball team that desperately needed him. And until Durant and Westbrook return, Jackson has these Oklahoma City Thunder. All of them, together, are holding onto this season for dear life.