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Behind a rebuilt bench, the Thunder make an early Western statement

By Royce Young | NBA writer

Jeremy Lamb helped the Thunder top San Antonio.  (USATSI)
Jeremy Lamb helped the Thunder top San Antonio. (USATSI)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There was a moment in the early fourth quarter Wednesday in Oklahoma City where the only thing appearing to be missing in Reggie Jackson's game was a beard.

The Thunder's point guard was slicing up the Spurs' defense, slipping through pick-and-roll hedges like he was casually stepping into a crowded elevator. He attacked, attacked again, then attacked some more.

And with his mentor struggling mightily ahead of him, going a meager 2 for 16 from the floor for only six points, Jackson answered the call for the Thunder as they snapped San Antonio's 11-game winning streak 94-88.

"Reggie Jackson kicked our ass," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in the most Gregg Popovich way possible.

Jackson's night: 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting, with 14 coming in an electric second half that sparked a Thunder cushion, putting the Spurs in a hole they couldn't climb out of.

For the Thunder, the questions haven't been around the top of the roster, as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the constants. Even Serge Ibaka has well established himself as a premier big man, and quite possibly worthy of even making the Thunder eligible for a "Big 3" moniker. But the hesitation in considering them among the Western's pile of contenders has been in how they replace Kevin Martin's missing second unit scoring punch, and moreover, James Harden's.

The answer has been Jackson, who methodically attacks the rim as if he was walking to his mailbox. And not just him. Harden trade piece Jeremy Lamb was equally instrumental in OKC's win, scoring 12 on 5-of-7 shooting. Between that duo, plus the always-steady Nick Collison, the potentially gifted Steven Adams, Derek Fisher's intangibles and Perry Jones III's ridiculous athleticism, the Thunder haven't replaced Harden, or even Martin. They've just restocked in volume.

“Those guys are really the reason we won this basketball game," Durant said of the second unit.

The Harden trade is one of the most discussed transactions in NBA history, and for good reason. The Thunder shook up an under-25 core that had the apparent potential to make land runs to the NBA Finals year after year. But the Thunder had a choice to make and instead of rolling the dice with Harden in restricted free agency, or going deep into the pockets of limited small market coffers, they made a move to get what they could with an eye on the future.

Well, that future might be now. Lamb, who so many dismissed while claiming the Harden deal was one of the worst ever, is quietly establishing himself as one of the best per 36 minute bench scorers in basketball. Adams has the look of a high quality starting center. And Jackson, a player that might be playing himself of OKC in the same way Harden did, is captaining a rebuilt bench that took the Spurs' second unit to task on Wednesday.

Think about it: The Thunder got 30 points on 39 shots from Durant and Westbrook against San Antonio, and yet won fairly convincingly regardless. Because between Reggie Jackson, or Jeremy Lamb, they got 35 points on 15-of-21 shooting. That's the kind of added punch that could take the Thunder from being simply in the title conversation to back in the Western driver seat.

Since Westbrook's injury last postseason, the West went from having a detour firmly in Oklahoma City, to winding south back to San Antonio. The Spurs have long been the sentinels of the West, ceding it here and there, like they did in 2012 to the upstart Thunder. Then, the Thunder relied on exuberant athleticism and energy to dismantle the Spurs in six games, getting a big shot from Harden in Game 5 to help get over that hump and take over the conference.

We're a long, long way from May, but the Thunder appear to be a step closer to returning to that level again. And with Jackson and Lamb cutting their teeth in a big game against the Spurs, coming up large in critical minutes, the confidence is growing they'll be ready if opportunity knocks in the postseason.

Plus, there's plenty of time to grow a beard between now and May.

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