In an evenly matched series that goes seven games, the stars tend to decide at least five or six. What usually makes the difference in a series like this is the one unsung hero that can take a game or two in to his own hands and swing the outcome of the entire series. Who better to do this than a sixth man? Usually a player who can come off the bench to bring instant offense, he’s a player that can take over a game at any moment with a hot streak from deep or by aggressively attacking the rim. In the Western Conference Semifinals matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, each team possesses a player to fill this role.
Jamal Crawford shot his way to the 2014 Sixth Man of the Year award for the Clippers and helped them earn the third seed in the West. Crawford is a traveled veteran, never able to stick in NBA starting lineups. Luckily for him, a player with his skillset can have just as much of an impact coming off the bench. Jamal can score at will. He has the ability to pull up from anywhere on the floor, even with a hand in his face and knock down shots that go so high they leave the view of the television cameras. Crawford is in his fourteenth NBA season, and he has finally found his perfect role with the Clippers. He averaged 18.6 points per game, giving his team the boost they needed for their second unit. When Chris Paul went down with an injury he stepped in to the starting lineup for 24 games and helped the team maintain their level of play. Whatever the Clippers asked Crawford to do, he obliged, including stepping up his game on the defensive end. He is the definition of a true professional and is a key reason that the Clippers are even in the conference semifinals. In the pivotal game seven of their opening series against the Warriors, Crawford came up big. He scored 22 points on 7-12 shooting and came up with two key steals. That kind of play is exactly what a team looks for from a sixth man and is what they will need him to do if they want to beat the Thunder in this series.
Like LA, the Thunder has their own stellar sixth man. Reggie Jackson was taken with the 24th pick in the 2011 draft and most fans didn’t even know who he was. He spent three years at Boston College and improved from 7 to 18 points per game during his time there. Because of a stretch of down years for the team, he didn’t get much attention and there was virtually no buzz around him heading in to the draft. Then, just when you thought Sam Presti couldn’t do it again, he quietly snagged Jackson. Initial belief was that he would never amount to anything beyond a decent backup point guard, but Presti had different plans. After spending two seasons riding the bench, Jackson got his chance to shine when Russell Westbrook went down with an injury in the first round of the playoffs last season. Jackson was a revelation, scoring just under 14 points per game in 11 games (9 starts). He showed the ability to get to the rim with ease and finish strong, as well as set up teammates for easy baskets. Heading in to the 2014 season Jackson was given the keys to the Mercedes, at least on a temporary basis. With Westbrook expected to be out at least four weeks after a second knee surgery, Reggie would get his chance to shine. After a rough start Westbrook made a surprise return after missing only two games, sending Jackson back to the bench. This time however, in a more prominent role. Jackson would be the sixth man, coming in for Westbrook who was on a minute restriction and eventually playing alongside Russell when he reentered. Jackson was a hit in this role. He had the freedom to attack when playing with the second unit and was able to play well with or without the ball when Westbrook was in the game. When the Thunder’s star point guard went down with another knee surgery, Jackson once again filled in, this time stepping his game up even more and proving to the Thunder that they really did have something special. He finished the season with 13-4-4 stat line in 28 minutes per game and showed improvements from the outside, hitting on almost 34% of his threes compared to 23% in the previous season. Jackson is surely destined for a starting role; however, for the time being he will look to provide the spark his team needs off the bench as they look to make a deep playoff run.
With two teams that are loaded with stars, it may just be a bench player that is the difference in this semifinals series. As Jamal Crawford showed in game seven against the Warriors and Reggie Jackson showed in game four against Memphis, when he scored 31 points including some huge buckets down the stretch in a Thunder victory, both teams should be confident that they have the right man for the job.