By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson has stepped in for the injured Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder have continued to roll.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Jackson’s improvement is not always evident, and not just because of Kevin Durant’s MVP-caliber play. Brooks said it’s hard for Jackson to stand out against the talented point guards he faces in the Western Conference on nightly basis. During a six-day stretch in January, Jackson matched up with Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Sacramento’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s Damian Lillard and San Antonio’s Tony Parker.
“It’s just a position that, especially in the West, it seems like there’s 15 very, very good point guards,” Brooks said.
Exceptional point guard play is one reason the West is 171-91 against the East this season. Though Chris Paul and Westbrook have missed significant time with injuries, the West features a deep, talented group of point guards.
Here are six point guards to watch in the West — not including New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday, Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio or Denver’s Ty Lawson:
• Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: Curry is scoring seemingly at will, but his improved ability to find his teammates has elevated him to All-Star starter. This season, he has increased his scoring and leads the league in 3-point goals while ranking second in assists. Curry’s range and quick release make him one of the NBA’s most potent perimeter threats, but his 9.0 assists per game makes him one of the league’s elite point guards and the Warriors offense click.
• Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns: The Suns are one of the biggest surprises of the season, and Dragic is the main reason. He been magnificent, lifting the Suns into the playoff race during what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Dragic has been especially dominant since with Eric Bledsoe out. In January, Dragic averaged 22.3 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from 3-point range. He has done it with a starting cast of Gerald Green, Channing Frye, Miles Plumlee and P.J. Tucker — solid players, but not stars.
• Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: The second-year point guard — and first-time All-Star — helps make the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference. He averages 20.7 points and 5.7 assists as the quarterback of the league’s No. 1 scoring offense. His best asset is his versatility — he can attack the basket, yet he shoots 41 percent from 3-point range and he passes as well as he scores.
• Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs: Though he’s 31 years old, Parker still gets from point A to point B faster than most. And unlike some of the other top point guards, Parker has been durable, missing just four games. He’s struggling a bit as the Spurs deal with injuries to Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, but Parker’s All-Star performance is keeping San Antonio competitive. Parker is averaging 18.4 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 51 percent from the field.
• Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: Unfortunately for the Clippers, Chris and his fictional twin brother, Cliff, have been logging the same number of minutes lately. But before Paul missed the month of January while recovering from a shoulder injury, but he was averaging 19.6 points and a league-best 11.2 assists in 34 games. Last year’s All-Star MVP started the season with 13 consecutive games with double figures in points and assists. Paul’s court vision, quickness and strength give him the option to score or set others up. Paul’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.47-to-1 is by far the best in the NBA.
• Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: Yes, the Thunder are rolling without him, but Westbrook, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. Westbrook has been out since late December after having surgery on his right knee — after a triple-double on Christmas Day against the Knicks, just two days before having the procedure. He’s expected to return after the All-Star break, and with Jackson’s development in his absence, the Thunder might have the best 1-2 point guard in the league. Before the latest surgery, Westbrook averaged 21.3 points and 7.0 assists per game. He also averaged 6.0 rebounds — a ridiculous total for a point guard.