Auburn Hills — For one night, Reggie Jackson was unstoppable.
It was Nov. 8, 2015, against the Portland Trail Blazers, when Jackson scored 26 of his career-high 40 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Pistons erase an 18-point third-quarter deficit and take an improbable road victory.
That was peak Pistons. That was peak Reggie Jackson. He ran pick-and-roll plays seamlessly with Andre Drummond — who had 29 points and 27 rebounds that game — and looked like a maestro directing the offense, almost scoring at will.
Three-pointers, floaters, runners. It all seemed so simple.
That wasn’t even two years ago, but it seems like a different time.
“It felt good, like I got in a really good groove making shots,” Jackson said that night. “When I was scoring, I felt like we were scoring. I saw the ball going in the basket, but I didn’t necessarily know it was me.”
That was the 2015-16 version of Jackson, the one who had All-Star production, the one who pulled all the pieces together like Voltron and was the engine behind Drummond’s All-Star selection that season.
That’s the Reggie Jackson the Pistons gave the long-term contract — and that’s the one they’re hoping to get back this season.
Jackson spent the summer resting and strengthening his left knee after a thunderbolt of tendinitis — the second occurrence since 2011 — that slowed him all of last season. Jackson had a platelet-rich plasma injection to help ease some of the pain in his knee last October.
He missed the first 21 games of the regular season, but immediately rejoined the lineup in December and wasn’t quite what anyone remembered, far from that dynamo in Portland.
“It just takes time. You just can’t come out here and push yourself to it,” said assistant coach Tim Hardaway Sr., who works closely with Jackson. “He hasn’t played basketball since April. It’s been a long time. Your timing is going to be there at times and off at times.
“He’s comfortable and we’re comfortable with him going into the first game and just play basketball — you don’t have to be Superman.”
It’s a slow process, but Jackson’s just going through the conservative steps the training staff has laid out. He missed the first two preseason games because of groin soreness, which set back his debut.
After the summer’s 16-week protocol of non-basketball activity, Jackson is healthy and optimistic about having his first-step explosion back and aiming higher than that 2016 apex.
“The goal is to be better than even (2016); the goal is just to have that burst. Once I have that burst, I can sharpen up all the tools,” Jackson said just before training camp. “I’ve shot enough shots in my life and I can continue to rep them in practices and each day just to get reps and feel good about them.”
The initial results have been qualitatively encouraging, but quantitatively disappointing: Jackson has regained the separation on the pick-and-roll, but the shots aren’t falling. In three preseason games, he’s shooting 37 percent (13-of-35) from the field and is just 1-of-12 on 3-pointers.
The rust is to be expected after such a long summer hiatus, but with the regular season starting tonight against the Charlotte Hornets, the time is growing short.
“Everything is timing when it comes to basketball: when you’re out a couple games (it’s noticeable), but when you’ve been out as long as he has…” guard Ish Smith said. “He looks good, with his burst, finishing at the basket in practice. He can get up above the rim and finish.
“It’s time and touch and feel and he’s getting that back with work and playing time.”
How the team is approaching his return — with the summer protocol, his minutes restriction in the preseason and the patience to let him get a mental and physical homeostasis in his return — is different.
Coach Stan Van Gundy said he learned from how he handled things last year and has a different mentality about how to bring Jackson back into the fold as he ramps back up.
“The part I didn’t give enough attention to last year is that there’s more than just the injury healing when guys are coming back,” Van Gundy said at media day. “There’s a lot more to it. The injury has got to heal and then there’s getting in shape.”