When insight was needed on the proverbial batting practice buzz generated by Stephen Curry’s pregame shooting routines or LeBron James’s unfamiliar pursuit of a championship in October, Reggie Jackson, the former Yankee, was a natural expert to seek out for an interview.
These unpredictable N.B.A. playoffs have provided further cause to consult Mr. October, because, well, who better to ask about basketball’s Reggie Jackson having a monster postseason?
Reggie Jackson, the baseball Hall of Famer, has never met Reggie Jackson, the resurgent Los Angeles Clipper, but the links between them are only getting stronger. The younger Jackson’s playoff flourish has made sure of it.
“I’ve always known the name and seen him around,” Reggie Jackson, who spent five seasons with the Yankees and turned 75 in May, said in a telephone interview. “And I’ve always hoped for him to do well like this. The fact that he’s got my name, I’m glad to see him doing well a little extra. I want him to make the name good.”
Jackson emphasized “good” and let out a laugh, knowing the Clippers’ Jackson is suddenly doing that regularly. The basketball Jackson began his 10th N.B.A. season with less than four minutes of playing time on opening night and started the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas on the bench, but he has been one of the stars of this postseason ever since. On Monday night, Jackson helped the short-handed Clippers extend the Western Conference finals with 23 points in a Game 5 victory at Phoenix that staved off elimination.
The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard, who has missed the entire series, and their starting center, Ivica Zubac, both sidelined by knee injuries. Paul George rightly soaked up the spotlight after scoring 41 gritty points in a 116-102 triumph that denied Chris Paul passage to his first N.B.A. finals. Yet Jackson remained prominent as he calmly continued his emergence as the team’s most reliable offensive option apart from George and Leonard — as predicted by no one when the playoffs began in mid-May.
Marcus Morris and Luke Kennard, each awarded a contract last off-season worth more than $60 million, haven’t approached third-option production. Jackson, playing on a $2.3 million veteran minimum deal at 31 years old, is averaging 18.1 points per game in the playoffs, while shooting a heady 49.2 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from 3-point range and 86.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Jackson has made at least three 3-pointers in 15 games this postseason, something only two other players in league history have managed: Golden State’s Curry and Klay Thompson. When Jackson and George are on the floor together with any three Clippers in small-ball lineups — any three, in other words, apart from Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins — Los Angeles is averaging a robust 1.34 points per possession.
Ian Eagle, the ace Nets broadcaster working playoff games for TNT, had seen enough by Game 5 of the Clippers’ series against Utah to excitedly trumpet a corner 3-pointer from Jackson thusly: “Ka-boom! Reggie Jackson has been Mr. June.”
Mr. October, as baseball’s Reggie Jackson has been known since the 1970s, routinely attends Golden State games and said he would plot a trip to watch his namesake in person “when the Warriors get their game back together.” It’s much easier for Jackson to relate to stars like Leonard or George than to a role player in an unforeseen breakout run, but Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue insisted that there was a tangible parallel beyond the name connection.
“Reggie, man,” Lue said of his playoff star. “He loves these type of moments to be able to play on a big stage.”
When Lue watches Jackson now, after making him a starter in response to losing the first two games of the Dallas series at home, he sees a player who is “so free.” Jackson said of the Clippers last week that “this team has empowered me” to play with that freedom — after myriad injuries (ankle, back, leg) led Jackson to a February 2020 buyout of the final year of a five-year, $80 million contract with the Detroit Pistons and uncertainty about the direction of his career.
Strong support from George, one of Jackson’s closest friends, has provided a key boost at dark times over the past year. And Lue has helped draw the best out of Jackson by simplifying his role compared with his time in Detroit. With the Clippers, Jackson has a green light to focus on scoring rather than playmaking. This season, for the first time in his career, he shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range during the regular season.
In yet another connection to Jackson’s baseball counterpart, adding eyewear to his in-game ensemble appears to have helped, too. The Yankees’ Jackson was famed for wearing aviator-style glasses at the plate and in the field that he said “kind of turned into my style.” The Clippers’ Jackson started wearing protective goggles in April after getting poked in the eye and promptly riddled the Houston Rockets for 26 points in the first game he tried them. In a foreshadowing of his playoff production, starting with the Houston game on April 9, Jackson shot 45.8 percent on 3-pointers (44 for 96) over his last 17 games of the regular season.
“The glasses are here to stay,” Jackson said.
His future with the Clippers is less certain. They can only offer a new contract that starts in the $10 million range because of financial constraints, and there is sure to be off-season interest after these playoffs.
Yet Jackson has incentive to explore staying, given how well he has settled in Clipperland, and I am throwing myself in as a beneficiary. Jackson’s postseason surge gave me one more excellent reason to reach out to the Reggie Jackson of my youth, for one of those all-my-worlds-colliding stories that I have loved sharing with you on Tuesdays in this space.
The first time I interviewed baseball’s Jackson was on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” when he agreed to join me on live television to co-narrate one of Curry’s dazzling pregame shooting sessions. Like a great home run hitter in the batting practice cage, Curry had fans arriving at Warriors games earlier than ever for a glimpse of his shooting prowess.
This is the third time I’ve interviewed Jackson for this newsletter, which made its debut in January 2018. After Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in January 2020, I asked him to share his experiences from the Yankees’ crushing loss of Thurman Munson in a 1979 plane crash. As the Lakers neared a pandemic-delayed championship, I asked him to expound on October glory and his LeBron fandom.
Because of my nostalgic bent, and the playoff story that basketball’s Jackson has been weaving with the Clippers, I thought one more chat with No. 44 was in order as I prepare to enter a new chapter in my career. After nearly four dream-come-true years here, including my introduction to the newsletter world, I am leaving The New York Times.
Some wise words from Reginald Martinez Jackson on Reginald Shon Jackson seemed like the perfect way to sign off.
“You’re always looking for a guy who can perform when it counts,” he said.
Mr. October would know.
Editor’s Note: We are sad to see Marc go, but this newsletter will be sticking around a little longer, through the end of the playoffs. We’ll have guest writers and our latest N.B.A. news, features and analysis. Stay tuned!
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Q: What’s the upside for playing for U.S.A. Basketball in Tokyo? The team is full of high-profile stars. I think they would benefit more, after how taxing the last two seasons were, using the off-season to train on their own and relax a bit. Are they playing for money — like endorsements? Is it to enhance their brand? Is there a performance edge to be gained? Is it for the perks of going to the Olympics? — Mike Chamernik (Chicago)
Stein: You answered your own question pretty well. Some or all of those benefits exist for N.B.A. stars when they play on the largest of world stages, which is why U.S.A.B. officials never have trouble finding 12 excellent players to fill out an Olympic roster.
The challenge is always assembling a roster worthy of the United States’ reputation in the sport for the quadrennial FIBA World Cup, which is held in much higher regard in most so-called basketball nations than Americans see it. That couldn’t have been more evident in September 2019, when the United States finished a lowly seventh — its worst showing in a major tournament since N.B.A. professionals were given permission to enter the Olympic arena starting with the Barcelona Games in 1992.
One of the biggest lures you didn’t mention: Playing for the U.S. team in men’s and women’s basketball almost always leads to a gold medal — and who wouldn’t want one of those? Trips to the Olympics are also often where star-to-star friendships can be hatched or fortified and then lead to future superteams, as we first saw with Miami-bound LeBron James and Chris Bosh after they played alongside Dwyane Wade on the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Yet another enticement offered by the Toyko team: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is coaching it. The chance to play for Popovich, if only for a few weeks, holds appeal to many players who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.
Q: Do you think Ben Simmons ever works on his shooting during the off-season? — Eric Cummings Jr. (Bronx)
Stein: Daryl Morey, Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations, had a lukewarm response last week when he was essentially asked what you asked.
“My understanding is Ben is all in with the organization,” Morey said. “We would expect the players to be willing to do whatever’s necessary.”
The statement didn’t do much to quell the notion that Simmons’s off-season work ethic is substandard. Also true: If he is working on his game more than it appears, his results demand a complete overhaul in approach regardless.
Morey nonetheless figures to receive no shortage of trade offers because Simmons only turns 25 on July 20, plays game-changing defense at multiple positions and, perhaps most crucially, is under contract for four more seasons worth more than $145 million. Teams that struggle to attract free agents are sure to have interest in an All-Star who can’t quickly flee.
Much was made last week about the meeting Simmons’s agent, Rich Paul, had with Morey to discuss Simmons’s future, but their leverage is minimal. No-trade clauses are extremely rare in the N.B.A., and Simmons didn’t qualify for one when he signed his last deal. With Morey known to be as aggressive as it gets when it comes to seeking trades, rest assured he will move him if a palatable trade materializes.
I’m convinced that Simmons, like Markelle Fultz previously with the 76ers, needs a change of scenery more than anything. I agree that alone won’t do it; hard work, as you suggest, has to be a key element of any potential resurrection. Yet playing anywhere other than Philadelphia has to help his chances of extricating himself from the funk that left Simmons, presumably mortified by the idea of being sent to the free-throw line, unwilling to shoot a single shot in the fourth quarter of the 76ers’ last four playoff games. There’s just too much baggage there to overcome.
Q: I have followed the N.B.A. for decades. I have no recollection of the No. 1-seeded Hawks in 1994. — @BennettRayford from Twitter
Stein: This was a response to one of my tweets last week about how this was the first season since 1993-94 in which both of the league’s No. 1 seeds (Philadelphia and Utah) failed to reach the conference finals.
The teams that fell short back then were Atlanta and Seattle, and the reason I remember it so well is because it was my first season as a full-time N.B.A. beat writer. The Los Angeles Daily News assigned me to cover the Clippers, home and road, in February 1994 — about 10 days before the trade deadline. The Clippers slammed home pretty quickly that I had graduated to the big leagues with the biggest trade in franchise history to that point: Danny Manning to the Hawks for the Atlanta icon Dominique Wilkins and a first-round pick.
The Hawks made the trade when they were already contending for the best record in the East during the first season of Michael Jordan’s first retirement. It meant that, as a nervy 24-year-old who may or may not have been ready for the N.B.A. beat, I was suddenly covering Wilkins, someone regarded among my high school friends as otherworldly. In the 1980s, Wilkins had us entranced when ESPN and CNN were in their infancies and disseminating game highlights nightly and nationally for the first time. David Casarez, one of my best friends, was the first person I knew with all the cable channels. He had the responsibility of getting as many dunks taped so we could all watch them later as a group.
So it was tricky for me sometimes to forget how I viewed him just a few years earlier once I was suddenly traveling to cover Wilkins just seven years after my high school graduation. Two everlasting highlights from that first season were sitting courtside for David Robinson’s 71-point game in San Antonio’s regular-season finale at the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena to win the scoring title and a March trip to Atlanta for Wilkins’s emotional return to the old Omni.
Robinson’s performance, with Madonna infiltrating the Spurs’ locker room after the game to see Dennis Rodman, had greater historical significance, but watching Wilkins score 36 points in a rare Clippers victory as a visitor to Atlanta will seem eternally surreal to me.
Ben Simmons’s 34.2 percent free-throw shooting (25 for 73) in the playoffs was the second lowest in league history for players who attempted at least 50 free throws. Only Detroit’s Ben Wallace (18 for 66 in 2005-6) shot worse (27.3 percent).
The Houston Rockets had just a 52.1 percent chance of landing a top-four pick in last week’s draft lottery. The Rockets, to their great relief, wound up at No. 2 when they could have fallen all the way to No. 18 had they dropped out of the top four — courtesy of the pick-swap provisions of their 2019 trade with Oklahoma City to acquire Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul. Those provisions would have enabled the Thunder to stick Houston with Miami’s first-round pick, since they also control the Heat’s No. 18 selection through a separate trade. Oklahoma City prioritized rest and injury recovery for its best players after a 20-27 start and finished the season on a 2-23 slide, then ended up slipping to No. 6 in a draft many scouts say features a clear-cut top four. Cleveland (No. 3) and Toronto (No. 4) jumped into the top four to knock the Thunder down.
Charlotte and New Orleans are the only two franchises left in the 30-team N.B.A. that have yet to reach the conference finals after the Los Angeles Clippers did so this year in their 51st season in Los Angeles, San Diego and Buffalo. The Atlanta Hawks, in the conference finals for just the second time in the club’s Atlanta history, also originated in Buffalo. The Hawks spent less than 40 days of their inaugural season in what was known as the National Basketball League in 1946-47 as the Buffalo Bisons.
Paul George’s 41 points in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals established a career playoff high. Yet in the Clippers’ Game 4 home loss, George shot 0 for 6 from the floor in the fourth quarter on field-goal attempts that either could have tied the game or given his team the lead. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, who endured a similar 0-for-6 finish in a 2019 playoff loss to Houston, is the only other player to do so since the 1997 playoffs, according to Stathead. Digitized play-by-play data for all games in an N.B.A. season was introduced in 1996-97.
The Hawks lost home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals by dropping Game 3 at home to Milwaukee, but Coach Nate McMillan still sports a 36-17 record (playoffs included) since replacing Lloyd Pierce on March 1. McMillan steered fifth-seeded Atlanta to upsets of the No. 4 Knicks and No. 1 Philadelphia in the first two rounds of the playoffs after failing to win a series in four consecutive trips to the playoffs with Indiana. Three of McMillan’s four Pacers teams got swept in Round 1.