OAKLAND -- Where to begin with Jarrett Jack? The Warriors' sixth man is also their lighting rod, the player who causes a wider range of emotions among their fans than anyone on the roster. They want to bear hug him and bench him, cheer him and choke him -- sometimes all in the space of a single possession. Jack is one of those players who can take a fanbase from elation to frustration and back in a heartbeat.
Everything there is to love and, well, not love about the player his teammates call J-Jack was on display Sunday at Oracle Arena. Fortunately for the Warriors, the fearless, clutch-shooting Jack won out, enabling them to overcome the Spurs in overtime, 97-87, and tie their Western Conference semifinal at 2-2. With Stephen Curry merely a shadow of himself due to his roughly 234th sprained ankle, and Klay Thompson's jumper having gone AWOL for much of the game, the Warriors needed some of their secondary players to assert themselves, and Jack, with 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists off the bench, did exactly that, with some key help from rookie Harrison Barnes, who added 26 points and 10 rebounds.
For the Spurs, who let an 80-72 lead with 4:50 left slip away, it was a missed opportunity to grasp firm control of the series from the persistent Warriors. Instead, Golden State is very much alive, with Game 5 on Tuesday in San Antonio. "We had them where we wanted them, and we blew it," said guard Manu Ginobili. The Spurs' inexplicable struggles at the foul line, where they shot 14-for-25, cost them dearly.
But Jack hurt them even more. After a mostly first-rate regular season, he has had his problems in the playoffs. He shot 41.1 percent in the first three games against the Spurs, and had drawn criticism for seeming to waste possessions with over-dribbling.
"People beat up Jarrett Jack, 'Why is he pounding the ball? Bench him,'" Warriors coach Mark Jackson said, repeating some of the sports radio chatter around the Bay Area in recent days. But Jackson's faith in Jack is unshakeable. "Toughness, edge, competitor, winner, honest guy who knows when he plays great and knows when he plays bad," Jackson described him after the Warriors' Game 3 loss, in which Jack shot 5-for-12 and committed a key turnover late in the game. "He's a heck of a player, and we would not be where we are today if it wasn't for Jarrett Jack. So fasten your seat beat and enjoy the ride. He embodies everything that we are."
Jack is similar to a couple of other players who have been prominent in this postseason, the Bulls' Nate Robinson and J.R. Smith of the Knicks, in that he is is extraordinarily self-confident, perhaps sometimes to a fault. Sharpshooters Curry and Thompson have come to be known as the Splash Brothers; sometimes it appears that Jack thinks it should be the Splash Triplets. It takes a player with supreme belief in his own ability to do what he did on the last possession of regulation on Sunday, with the score tied at 84. With 16.1 seconds left, Jack let the clock run down, then went one-on-one against the Spurs' Tony Parker before pulling up for an 18-footer at the buzzer that bounced off the front rim. No other Warrior touched the ball on the possession. If someone was going to play hero ball, you might have expected it to be one of Golden State's designated heroes, not their third guard.
But the Warriors never would have been in position to win at the buzzer if not for several big plays by Jack down the stretch. It wasn't just his scoring. After Manu Ginobili missed what would have been a tie-breaking three-pointer with 30 seconds left, there was a scramble under the basket for the rebound and the player who finally gained control? Jack. That eventually led to his missed buzzer-beater, but undaunted by that, Jack came back to hit the first bucket of overtime and a pair of key free throws.
In some ways Jack was the perfect player for the circumstances on Sunday, with the status of Curry (who still managed 22 points despite the bum ankle) in doubt until just before tipoff, some players might have been affected by the uncertainty over how their role might change depending on Curry's availability. Not Jack. He is J-Jack, for good or for ill, starting or subbing, criticized or praised. "I didn't need to read a Phil Jackson Zen book or anything like that," he said. "I don't adjust my mind frame according whether I'm coming off the bench or starting. My role on this team is the same."
That role isn't just to take the Warriors and their fans on a roller-coaster ride, even if it seems to work out that way. In addition to what he provides on the court, Jack's role is to be a kind of big brother to the Warriors' sizable group of young players. He has tried to nurture the soft-spoken Curry's leadership skills. ("I told myself it's necessary for me to say less in order for him to say more," Jack says.) And he makes an effort to keep them loose enough to handle the pressures of the postseason. Describing how gimpy Curry looked warming up, Jack compared him to Isiah Thomas playing on a badly sprained ankle in the 1988 Finals. Then Jack looked at Barnes, sitting next to him on the podium. "You're probably too young to remember that, HB," he said, drawing a laugh from Barnes.
Whether it's a big shot or a little smile, eventually Jack always seems to give the Warriors what they need.