Phil Jackson lists home court advantage as biggest priority during the regular season
Deep into the dog days of the 2009-2010 NBA season, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson sensed the team's sluggishness and challenged his team to end the regular season with 60 wins. The strategy didn't work, and neither did his efforts to inspire the Lakers to end with the league's best record so they could have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Lakers finished with a 57-25 regular-season record and Jackson didn't mince words afterward about his frustration.
"We're disappointed in our team's effort at the end of the season," Jackson said at the time. "Sixty games was a minimum I thought for this team to win, and we didn't match it."
Everything turned out all right, however, as the Lakers won a second consecutive championship. Jackson backtracked a tad after Thursday's practice when he cited last season's injuries as the reason they fell short. While his motivational tactic spoke to his want for his team to put itself in the best position to succeed in the postseason, the unpredictable events surrounding the playoffs show that the proper preparation doesn't always result in the wanted outcome. Cleveland, after all, compiled the league's best record for the past two seasons, and both times the Cavaliers imploded in the postseason.
With the Lakers (5-0) facing the Toronto Raptors (1-3) Friday night at Staples Center, Jackson dangled another carrot about the Lakers needing home-court advantage for the 2011 postseason.
"What's important," Jackson said, "is getting out ahead of the rest of the pack and somehow or other putting them in the back so that you have that home court advantage that looms important at certain times in the playoffs."
Though Jackson said "numbers aren't important," such as his constant downplaying of any of his Lakers teams trying to break the 72-win mark set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls he coached, he's thrown out numbers from time to time. He challenged the Lakers at one point last season to go undefeated on a trip. He set 60 wins as the standard. And, of course, he wrote on the marker board in the locker room after each playoff victory the number of wins the Lakers were away from the title.
Jackson's motivations aside, the Lakers should view home-court advantage as the ultimate goal and remember how much it helped them during the past two playoff runs. I never thought the Lakers were realistically in jeopardy during their seven-game semifinals series against Houston, but a short postseason surely could've happened had Game 7 taken place in Houston. I never thought Orlando had a shot against the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals, but opening the series in L.A. quickly soured the Magic's confidence. I never thought the top-seeded and experienced Lakers would cede an upset to the eighth-seeded and inexperienced Thunder, but overcoming Ford Center's electric atmosphere would've proved more daunting in a Game 6 than in a Game 7. One thing, however, I didn't know about was the 2010 NBA Finals, where the Lakers and Celtics fought valiantly and reminded everyone why this historic rivalry remains so great. I doubt the Lakers could've overcome a 13-point deficit in a Game 7 in Boston.
Five games into this season, the Lakers appear on the right track and are among three teams still undefeated (Atlanta, 5-0, and New Orleans, 4-0, are the others). The Lakers have generated a league-leading 113.8 points per game. The Lakers bench has meshed so well that Jackson has already compared them to the 1999-2000 reserves that featured Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Robert Horry and current starting point guard Derek Fisher. Bryant expedited his rehab process. Pau Gasol earned Western Conference player of the week honors. Lamar Odom has been consistent in every single game. And Derek Fisher put together a fourth-quarter performance against Sacramento that resembled his vintage playoff moments.
"There's a workmanlike, take-care-of-business attitude that's developing," Fisher said. "I like our approach. We're not really messing around a lot. We're not taking anything for granted. We're really trying to do the right things, but there's a ways to go."
Still, the Lakers' quick start shouldn't be at all surprising. The 2009-10 season started with an 8-1 mark, the 2008-09 squad went 7-0 and the 2001-2002 team went 16-1. Four of the Lakers' five opponents so far didn't make the playoffs last season, and the Suns look much different than the Amare Stoudemire-led squad the Lakers met in the 2010 West Finals. And only six of the 13 remaining games in November feature 2010 playoff teams.
Bigger challenges will surely await on Christmas Day against Miami, in January against Oklahoma City and Boston and in the Lakers' seven-game road trip in February. For now, however, worries about the upcoming challenges can be put on hold. Winning games now will put the Lakers in the lead for home-court advantage.
"The thing for us always early in the season is to take advantage of the home schedule," Fisher said. "We know when the big stars in L.A. come during award season, we have to get out. They just kick us out and bring in the real celebrities. We have to win home games early because we don't have as many in the second part of the season. That's something we really need to focus on."
-- Mark Medina
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