Jackson a Man of Many Roles

by Jeff Tzucker
by Conrad Brunner

March 29, 2005

At various points in his career, Stephen Jackson has been a sixth man, starter, small forward, shooting guard, primary scorer and defensive stopper.

Until this season, he has filled those roles one at a time.

Circumstances have dictated he take on many of those responsibilities all at once with the Pacers this season. In the process, he has helped the team strengthen its bid for a playoff berth. With three wins in the last four games, the Pacers face Miami Thursday night in Conseco Fieldhouse.

"I love playing basketball and I embrace any role I'm given," Jackson said. "My role was to be the third scorer and second defensive stopper in San Antonio. I played that role pretty well. My role was to go out and be a scorer in Atlanta. So whatever role I have to take on to make my team better, I will.

"We have guys down now so my role is bigger on defense and offense. I've just got to step my game up totally on both ends of the court."

He began the season as the starter at shooting guard because Reggie Miller opened on the injured list. When he returned from his 30-game NBA suspension for his role in the Nov. 19 incident in Detroit, Jackson stepped into the starting small forward spot made vacant by Ron Artest's season-long suspension. He also inherited the responsibility of guarding the opponent's best offensive player at either small forward or shooting guard, depending on matchups. When Jermaine O'Neal went down with a sprained right shoulder 13 games ago, Jackson became the go-to scorer.

"What I have learned in my short five years is the only thing you can control is playing basketball," Jackson said. "If I go out there and play hard, I'll make up for some of the things J.O. does as far as posting up and rebounding. But we've got to make up for it as a team. I can't make up for Ron and J.O. by myself. We have to play team defense and play together on offense. It has to be a team effort. We can't replace those guys with one or two guys.

"Obviously, my role has changed. I've got to step up and be more of an offensive threat and try to stop guys on D, but I'm just playing basketball. I'm having fun, I'm getting the shots I want to get. My team is relying on me and giving me the ball so I've got to try to capitalize on that."

Jackson has led or tied for the team lead in scoring in 10 of the last 15 games. Since O'Neal's injury, he has averaged 22.0 points while Reggie Miller has averaged 19.8.

"We've adjusted our offensive system around those two guys and around our perimeter guys to a certain degree," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "They're going to have to play well for us to have a chance to win games.

"We've had kind of like five different sets of players. We've had to make a lot of major adjustments in a short period of time on a lot of occasions but we're getting used to it. Our team has become very adaptable."

No player more so than Jackson, although the strain is beginning to show in his shooting percentage. Jackson has gone 56-of-163 from the field (34.4 percent) in the last nine games. Still, his season averages of 18.3 points and 35.6 shooting from the 3-point line would represent career highs, if maintained.

Carlisle would like Jackson to use his evolving 3-point threat as a decoy to open up driving and passing lanes inside.

"I would never discourage him from taking open 3-point shots but it's important that they're in the context of how we're playing," Carlisle said. "If he gets on a run, you tend to say, 'Hey, go ahead and take a quick one every once in a while.'

"I think Steve has a pretty good understanding of where we are as a team and what's needed of him. He needs to score and do those kinds of things but also he's guarding a great offensive player every night so what he does at the defensive end is important, as well."

A streaky player who can light up an arena quickly when he gets into a rhythm, Jackson plays like a guy who's one shot away from getting on a hot streak. He scored 11 in the first quarter in Milwaukee Monday night to help the Pacers get off to a quick start that led to a victory. He nearly brought them back from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit in Chicago, scoring 12 in the quarter, including a pair of late 3-pointers that made it a one-possession game. Against his former Spurs teammates, he scored eight points in the first 5½ minutes of the fourth quarter to turn the game into a rout.

Jackson's ability to become a one-man run sometimes works against him, because he can be too quick to pull the trigger, particularly from the perimeter. He is at his best slashing inside the defense and creating shots either for himself or teammates.

"I seem to play better when I get at least one foot in the paint," Jackson said. "I seem to create shots, get fired up and create shots for everybody else. I tend to rely on my three a lot and it kind of gets me in trouble … I tend to settle. I can have a 7-foot guy on me and instead of driving by him I'll shoot a three. That hurts my team."

For the most part, however, Jackson has been invaluable to the Pacers, not only for his physical skills but his mental approach. He can shrug off a bad quarter or off night and not let it carry over. In a season that has brought a relentless stream of adversity, the ability to keep looking ahead, to keep moving forward without wallowing in the past, has become a trademark of the Pacers.

"We're just playing, man," he said. "With guys down, we can't really worry about what's been going on or how things are going wrong. We've got to continue to play and we're starting to have fun."