Commentary

Doubling Down

Thunder's Lamb, Jackson combine to effectively replace Harden's contributions

Updated: December 24, 2013, 10:24 AM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Jeremy Lamb, Reggie JacksonGetty ImagesJeremy Lamb, left, and Reggie Jackson together are better than one James Harden.

This is not the way the plan was supposed to play itself out.

When the James Harden-for-Kevin Martin trade went down, the plan was for Martin to fill the scoring void left by Harden to essentially become the third "star" in the Oklahoma City Thunder's three-man dynasty.

OKC found out in an ugly way that it wasn't just Harden's scoring (16.8 points per game) that it was missing. It was a combination of his size, confidence, tenacity and his ability to keep defenders on their heels by always being in attack mode. It was a near-perfect marriage to Russell Westbrook's style because they technically played the same game. Harden was just less reckless.

Martin didn't do any of that for the Thunder. Not at the 14 points he averaged last season (3.1 PPG lower than he averaged the season before and 7.1 less than the 21.4 he averaged over the seven seasons before coming to OKC) and not by reducing himself to a one-dimensional spot-up shooter.

Plans and reality rarely mix. Sometimes, though, when plans fall apart, some of the pieces fall into place in unexpected ways.

Meet the official replacements for James Harden.

Plural. Instead of looking for one player to fill the Harden void, OKC has found two. It's an unconventional approach, but together Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson have become a collective counter-reaction to the plan the Thunder had in mind when they took the risk of life without Harden.

Almost by default. Lamb came over in the Harden trade as a promising throw-in and still in the D-League.

Jackson was a roster-filler; someone to keep Westbrook from being bored in practice. A "break glass in case of extreme emergency" player.

When Westbrook was injured in the playoffs last season, Jackson played himself into a position where the team began to believe he could be a little more than serviceable.

Last season, Lamb showed up from the bench for bits and pieces of games. He played 41 of his 147 minutes in the regular season's last game with nothing on the line for either team. But the Thunder needed more from him this season.

So the original plan changed.

If you've watched OKC lately, you can see a sense of attractive arrogance returning to the Thunder's aura. It's as if they know, you know? Like they know they are back.

Yes, Westbrook is working his way into his former all-world status and Steven Adams is one of the biggest surprises in the league so far, but what has gotten the Thunder back into the most-dangerous-team conversation is the unexpected two-man/sixth man shared space they've established with Jackson and Lamb.

Jackson and Lamb have individually "helped" the Thunder so far, but together they've eased the minds of the front office, which even going into this season was wondering how much longer it would be haunted by that trade.

Together they are averaging 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game on 47.7 percent shooting. All-Star consideration numbers if they were one player coming off the bench. They are being given the playing time, creative luxury and freedom to replicate anything Harden might have done. Jackson is balling like he's the reincarnation of legendary sixth man Bobby Jackson, and Lamb is playing like it's 2011 and he's back at UConn winning national titles with Kemba Walker.

And they are doing it in such a subtle way that not many outside of OKC are noticing how -- and how consistently -- they are getting it done.

Take the three recent games against the Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls as a three-game sample size. All wins for the Thunder.

  • Against the Nuggets: Jackson gave them 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 20 minutes of play, while Lamb contributed 9 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 22 minutes of play. Combined stat line: 17 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals in 42 minutes.
  • Against the Magic: Jackson had 10 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists and no steals in 23 minutes of play, while Lamb starred with 16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal in 23 minutes. Combined stat line: 26 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and 1 steal in 46 minutes.
  • Against the Bulls: Lamb had a 3-for-11 night, where he produced 7 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 23 minutes, while Jackson lit up for 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, zero steals (and 6 turnovers) in 28 minutes. Combined stat line: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal in 51 total minutes of play.

The combined numbers add up to what Harden would, could and often did on a nightly basis in 2011-12 (16.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 49.1 percent) as he walked away with sixth man of the year and was one of the main reasons the Thunder made it to the NBA Finals.

And it is those combined numbers that has Oklahoma City settling into a groove that is very reminiscent of those times two seasons ago when basketball life in OKC was a little more than good. We look at the Thunder's current 22-5 record and how they have lost just one home game and figure that Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook are simply playing at their superstar levels and are the primary reason. We'd be wrong.

The two-man/sixth man thing is trending in OKC. Trending like Supreme clothing and women shaving one side of their head.

(And we won't even get into the financial aspect of how much money Oklahoma City is saving with Jackson and Lamb on rookie contracts against what the Thunder would have had to pay to keep Harden.)

Plus: It's rarer for two people to have bad games or be off than one. Therein resides the beauty in all of this.

So OKC now has a three-four punch to complement the Durant/Westbrook one-two. No longer searching for that one "signature" player to do something close to what Harden once did for the Thunder, head coach Scott Brooks has managed to develop two for the price -- and results -- of one.

What did Hannibal Smith say at the end of almost every "A-Team" episode when he'd stick the victory cigar in his mouth? "I love it when a plan comes together."

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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