Phoenix — Reggie Jackson wore a smile akin to Cheshire Cat. In the postgame locker room in Phoenix, he had gotten through his first game since suffering a Grade-3 right-ankle sprain in December.
For one night, Jackson was a new player, on a new-look team that barely resembled what he remembered before the injury. Gone are starting wings Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, two of their top scorers at the time and replacing them is Blake Griffin.
As much as Jackson had to reacquaint himself to the speed and conditioning at an NBA level, he also had to figure out a way to play in the revamped starting lineup with Griffin and Andre Drummond.
There wasn’t much of an issue.
Jackson was limited to just 15 minutes Tuesday night, after missing the past 37 games, but passed the eye test, with seven points and two assists. He moved relatively well on the defensive end and though he was a step slow, looked good on offense, hitting three jumpers.
Coach Stan Van Gundy said this week he wasn’t sure if there would be much to glean from Jackson’s performance in the last 12 games of the regular season, but Tuesday’s effort provided a glimpse of how the Pistons’ top trio could project into next season.
“Regardless of what happens the last 11 games, if we can get Reggie healthy and keep him healthy, with those three guys, that’s going to be a formidable group to play against, for anybody,” Van Gundy said. “Nothing that happens in the next 11 games would change my mind on that. They just need time together and they need health.”
Griffin already is rounding into form, posting 24.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists, hitting 47 percent on 3-pointers in the last nine games. Just as he needed the first 13 games to find an equilibrium, Jackson will need time to find his rhythm, coming off the injury.
The hapless Suns chose to go under screens, allowing Jackson to get good looks at jumpers, which is what he wanted. The next phase will be gaining his wind an explosiveness along the perimeter and being able to play more than three- or four-minute stints.
“We worked on a few things and of course it’s going to take some more reps to get more comfortable and jell and figure it out,” Jackson told reporters. “Also, to give defenses more chances to see us and figure out how to counteract everything. Just trying to figure out how to play off each other and make our teammates better. .
“Those two are the big two and I’m happy to be the straw that stirs the drink and allow me to play with them and try to be a better leader for this team.”
That’s what will make the final stretch of the regular season — playoff run or not — worth watching. Van Gundy reiterated that the Griffin trade wasn’t necessarily for this season, but for next year and beyond. The past two seasons have been derailed by the Jackson injuries in order to figure out what this roster is and what changes can be made, the focus will be on Jackson’s health.
Without Jackson, the Pistons were 12-25 this season and 14-16 last year, an obvious sign that backup Ish Smith is better served as at best a short-term starter but more a full-time reserve. To take full advantage of their strengths, Jackson will have to be in the lineup — and Tuesday was a start.
“It’s good to have him back. He’s still a little slow, trying to get himself back together but he’s going to be fine. He moved around well and scored some points today,” Drummond said of Jackson. “We saw glimpses of what he’s going to do when he comes back at 100 percent. The spacing is going to be great because he’s able to shoot the three, so teams can’t go under on him.
“(Phoenix) went under on screens, so they had to pay for it. It’s going to be good.”
Thursday’s matchup against the red-hot Rockets will provide a better litmus test, as Jackson could see a gradual increase in minutes over the next few games.
The extreme optimist will be looking for the Pistons to still make a run to the playoffs, trying to catch the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat for the last spot.
The extreme realist will be looking to see what the Pistons’ version of the Big Three could look like to figure out a long-term plan.
PISTONS AT ROCKETS
Tipoff: 8 Thursday, Toyota Center, Houston
Outlook: The Pistons go from a win over the Suns, the worst team in the NBA to the best team in the Rockets (57-14), who have won six straight and 27 of their last 29 games. The Pistons (32-39) won the first meeting, 108-101, in January.