Published Nov. 11, 2017

The reputation won’t truly be sealed until the heroics happen in May. We can’t really go gaga until the big three-point shot happens in the waning seconds of a pivotal playoff game. Springtime basketball is when the legends are built.

But the Pistons don’t do the playoffs, as a rule. They’ve played basketball for the past decade as if the postseason offends them. Just one brief, four-game playoff appearance since 2009. The Pistons haven’t played a basketball game in May since 2008.

That’s not Reggie Jackson’s fault, of course. Jackson has only been a Piston for less than three years.

It looks like Jackson, the Pistons point guard, is trying to be this era’s Isiah Thomas. What Jackson did on Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks is a start, I suppose. A journey of a thousand steps and all that.

Channeling his inner “Zeke”

It was Thomas—Zeke, they call him—who would do his duty as a point guard for 36 minutes in a big game, distributing the ball, getting other players involved, yadda yadda.

Then the fourth quarter would come around.

In those final 12 minutes—and overtime if necessary—Zeke would call his number as he saw fit. Sometimes he wouldn’t even wait until the fourth quarter. Who can forget when Zeke scored 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 in the 1988 Finals, many of those points on a badly sprained ankle?

On Friday night, Jackson scored 13 points in the fourth quarter of the Pistons’ 111-104 win over the Hawks. Six of those points came in heart-stopping fashion: two three-point shots in the game’s final minute, when the outcome was hanging in the balance.

It was all very Isiah-ish.

The Pistons, who are in rarefied air with a 9-3 record, had allowed the woeful Hawks (2-10) to climb back from a 19-point first half deficit by forgetting the basics of defense. The game was tied at 100 with less than 60 seconds to go when Jackson brought the ball up the court. The young Hawks were charging, buoyed by a 14-6 run to knot the contest.

Jackson, who wears Chauncey Billups’ old no. 1, may as well have been donning Zeke’s no. 11 as he sized up the defense, stepped back, and let fly with a triple try from the top of the arc, a good two feet beyond the line. There was plenty of time left on the shot clock. This was a calculated shot, not a desperation heave.

The shot was true, and huge. It knocked the feisty Hawks back three notches. It was also a shot that Isiah made time and again in his Hall of Fame career, from that exact spot on the floor.

Then, with fewer than 30 seconds remaining and the Pistons leading 104-100, in search of a knockout blow, Jackson struck again.

Receiving the basketball on the right side of the arc, Jackson dribbled, teasing his defender as he made a brief advance to the key. Jackson stepped back and dribbled some more.

“He’s going to shoot,” I said to my sofa. “He feels it.”

Jackson did, and the ball went swish. The knockout blow had been delivered.

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If the Pistons are to be successful in the playoffs, they’ll need someone not afraid to take the big shot at the end of games.

 

“Doing his thing” in the fourth quarter

This is a healthy Jackson now—not the one who battled through a knee injury last season. Not the one who looked like he was abdicating his starter’s role to Ish Smith.

“I feel good, I feel healthy,” Jackson said after he slugged the Hawks to the canvas. “I’m just trying to find a way to be effective within the team’s offense. … Just trying to find a way to pick my spots and do my job at the end of the game, which is to get us great shots.”

Now, we must calm down a little. This was a November game against the bleeping Atlanta Hawks. But it appears that Jackson—and more importantly, his teammates—believe that it’s his role to be the big shot guy. He’s the one that should have the ball in so-called “crunch time,” that ancient sports term.

“That’s Reggie Jackson basketball. In the fourth quarter, you just kind of let Reggie do his thing,” behemoth Andre Drummond said after the game. “He just plays at a whole different level in the last five minutes of the game,” Drummond continued to gush. “When he has the ball, I have the utmost faith when he does have it. He’s going to make the right decision more times than not.”

Of course, Jackson is the point guard so his teammates often have no choice but to let Reggie “do his thing.” Still, it’s nice to see that Jackson’s calculated ball-hogging isn’t offending anyone.

Jackson isn’t new to this role. Two seasons ago, when he was healthy and the Pistons made a playoff cameo, Jackson led the league—yes, the entire NBA—in late fourth quarter, “clutch” points, as determined by advanced metrics.

The Pistons need someone to take the bull by the horns late in games.

Drummond is still the Pistons’ X-factor, as far as I’m concerned. If the big man isn’t all in—mentally, especially—the Pistons don’t have a shot at anything. Avery Bradley, the veteran brought over from Boston, has been a breath of fresh air for his combination of defense and offense.

But Drummond isn’t a low post threat. Maybe he never will be. The Pistons can’t dump the ball to him on the block and stand back, waiting for him to either draw a foul or hit a short hook shot. The big man will have to cede the late-game heroics to someone else.

That someone else looks to be Jackson.

Let’s see if Jackson can pull off what he did against the Hawks, and what he did often two seasons ago, in the playoffs. Let’s see if he can drain a triple with a defender on him in the closing seconds of a Game 5 when the series is tied. Let’s see if he can be as hot in crunch time as the temperature is outside the arena.

Until then, the Pistons will take what they can get.

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