Lakers Coach Phil Jackson takes a few lessons away from Cleveland's loss to Boston
It's the "national story right now that everyone's discussing," as one reporter put it to Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, but he really had nothing to say about Boston's six-game upset over Cleveland in the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals.
"I don't," was all Bryant replied after practice Friday when asked what he thought about the series. Clearly, Bryant has other things to worry about, what with the Lakers gearing up for their Western Conference matchup against the Phoenix Suns that begins Monday. His short and clipped answers Friday also came in response to the more typical pregame questions, you know the ones about the long time off between games, his health and the Suns' personnel.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson seemed more reflective. He took a question about how critical a team's fundamentals become during the playoffs and diverted it into a commentary on how Cleveland's 22 turnovers in its Game 6 loss to Boston ultimately doomed them. "That's really the issue about these games," Jackson said. "You want to limit those turnovers because you're always going to pay for it at some level."
With Jackson already bringing up the topic, I asked whether Cleveland's second consecutive early-round playoff exit serves as a teachable moment, highlighting how a league-leading regular-season finish doesn't automatically guarantee postseason success. Jackson presented an interesting response in the video below.
Jackson brings up several points that easily relate to the Lakers. The first one involves trades. Even though Jackson doesn't explicitly state it, it's fairly obvious he brought up Cleveland's acquisition of Antawn Jamison from Washington to serve as a contrast to the Lakers' decision not to make any trades before the deadline. I had argued at the time that one approach doesn't vastly bode superior to the other, but from the Lakers' standpoint, I understood their reasoning in wanting to keep the current roster intact. Besides salary cap implications, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak felt generally happy with makeup of the roster since it reflected the 2009 championship team with exception to Ron Artest being in place of Trevor Ariza. Though there have been legitimate concerns regarding the point guard position, the bench and the inconsistent defense on pick-and-roll plays, I had believed that the Lakers could absorb those problems. I had also feared that with a team that had struggled with establishing continuity, partly because of both injuries and effort, bringing in new players would only disrupt that plan even more.
Then came Jackson's contention about the Cavaliers that "they had a great team and their effort was surpassed by Boston's in the situation." As many justifiably speculated how the Cavaliers' early exit would affect LeBron James' future with the team, it shouldn't at all diminish how well Boston has played. That goes the same way with how well Oklahoma City played against the Lakers. Though there were several areas, namely transition defense, the Lakers could have improved, the Thunder gave a quality effort, but the Lakers responded and have publicly said that the series helped spur better play in their semifinals matchup with Utah.
The Lakers' success partly points to how they benefited from playing the Jazz, a talented and hard-working team that really lacked the depth and size to compete with the Lakers' frontline. When you add the fact that Bryant's health improved dramatically, the Lakers benefited from a perfect storm of fortune. That's not to say this wasn't planned. There is a reason why the Lakers spent the last month of the regular season limiting minutes. But it still remained unpredictable whether the Lakers could suddenly click once the postseason began.
Now with the Lakers playing engaged in the last two months and the team becoming healthier in the past month, the team has been playing its best basketball at the right time. I don't think the moral of the story with Cleveland's early loss suddenly justifies the Lakers' approach in mostly viewing the regular season as an annoyance. Instead, it speaks more to how it's rather unpredictable whether a team's good or bad performance in the regular season will translate into the postseason. That being said, I have grown a greater appreciation by witnessing first-hand how the Lakers have handled adversity. There were certainly moments highlighting on-court frustration and mini-dramas (take Artest's complaints on Twitter regarding Jackson as an example), but they were all minuscule in nature and the team never let any of those problems magnify into something consequential. While the Cavaliers simply folded under adversity, I can't overstate enough how the Lakers' maturity helped prevent problems from escalating. It's hard to actually quantify this area other than looking at how possible worst-case scenarios never came to fruition.
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Photo: Cleveland center Shaquille O'Neal is staying calm even though the Cavaliers trail the Boston Celtics, 3-2, in the Western Conference semifinals. Credit: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images