Lakers Coach Phil Jackson conflicted about team's readiness for the postseason
Sitting down in his captain's chair -- something usually reserved for the sideline -- Lakers Coach Phil Jackson eyed his surroundings in the team's media workroom.
Everywhere he looked, there were signs that the playoffs were approaching, with Game 1 of the team's first-round series against the New Orleans Hornets set for 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Staples Center. A plush purple cloth covered the table used for news conferences. The surrounding cameras indicated a heightened media presence. And if that wasn't obvious enough, Jackson said, unprompted, in a giddy tone, "Let's talk about the playoffs, OK?"
Yes, it's that time of year when the scrutiny becomes more laserlike in its focus, the games matter more and teams have no choice but to dial up their intensity. But Jackson's sentiments regarding his team appear to be as conflicted as the way the Lakers finished the regular season, surging to a 17-1 mark after the All-Star break, suffering a five-game losing streak and then securing a No. 2 seeding in the Western Conference with wins against San Antonio and Sacramento that solely satisfied the bottom-line result.
"We've had a very up-and-down finish," Jackson said at the team's practice facility in El Segundo on Thursday, a day off for the Lakers before practice resumes Friday. "There's no doubt the last 25 games don't make sense in a lot of ways."
That's why Jackson struggled to make sense of his team in general. He stuck to his long-held belief that the Lakers can three-peat, but the scenarios appear as unwavering as they did when his assistant coaches Brian Shaw, Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Chuck Person predicted that the team would finish with 55 regular-season wins in what Jackson called a "think-tank session." The Lakers might have exceeded the assistant coaches' expectations, but they fell short of Jackson's hope that they could reach 60 wins.
Jackson also could not provide details about the health of center Andrew Bynum, whose MRI revealed a bone bruise in his right knee. He felt optimistic that Bynum could practice before Game 1 and shared that Bynum "assured me he was going to be OK." But Jackson said he has yet to see how Bynum's knee has looked since he hyperextended it Tuesday against San Antonio. That's why Jackson refused to even offer a glimpse on whether Bynum could replicate the numbers he posted since the All-Star break: per-game averages of 11.2 points, 12.3 rebounds (trailing only Dwight Howard's 14.7) and 2.36 blocks (trailing Howard's three and JaVale McGee's 2.57).
"We hope he can do that and better," Jackson said. "He's played better for us in stretches during the year. Right now it's about being physically capable."
There are, of course, other health concerns: Matt Barnes' sore knee, Steve Blake's chickenpox and how Bryant will ratchet up the intensity while playing with his surgically repaired right knee. Jackson was unusually excited about getting Derrick Caracter and Trey Johnson from the Bakersfield Jam of the Development League and was eyeing Devin Ebanks' return, after a six-week absence because of a strained left tibia, so that the team could have full-court practices.
Jackson appropriately described the players as "being anxious" entering the postseason, but it's telling that very little of it centered on New Orleans but instead on the big picture. We in the media are partly responsible for that since we ask the questions. Jackson described the Hornets as a "survivor-type team and feisty group of guys" for being able to absorb a number of adversities. The league purchased the team from owners George Shinn and Gary Chouest, who were in financial trouble, in December. Chris Paul's future with the team before the season remained in question, highlighted by his reported comments at Carmelo Anthony's wedding that he'd like to team up with him and Amare Stoudemire. And the Hornets played through plenty of pendulum swings, including a 12-1 start to the season and a 4-8 stretch in February. And they lost forward David West, the team's leading scorer and second-best rebounder, to a season-ending left anterior cruciate ligament injury for the last nine games.
One adversity the Hornets haven't overcome involves the Lakers, who swept them in four games in the regular season. But given the Lakers' situational attitude, that's the exact reason why Jackson is uneasy.
"I hope it doesn't let us think this is going to be anything easy," Jackson said. "We're just going to have to attend to this one. It's the kind of seriousness with this team that's struggled with problems."
Jackson went back to the beginning of the season, which started with most of the Lakers' training camp in Europe resulting in lost practice time. A home-heavy schedule, plenty of off-season rest for veterans (with the exception of Lamar Odom, who played in the FIBA World Championship) and a new bench helped contribute to an 8-0 start despite Bynum's 25-game absence as he continued rehab. But then things spiraled away, including Gasol's fatigue, Bryant's scoring tendencies, Ron Artest's continued discomfort in a reduced role and an inconsistent bench, struggles that hit an all-time low after the Lakers lost to the league's worst team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, before the All-Star break.
The Lakers solved many of those problems with a 17-1 run after the All-Star break, giving them a chance to make up ground a floundering San Antonio team in the top spot in the Western Conference. But the Lakers' five-game losing streak afterward severely dampened Jackson's spirits.
"There was a goal achieved this year [in securing second place], which was good, but there was a certain response that I didn't appreciate that came along with the losing our opportunity to finish first," Jackson said. "That's the easiest way I can say it."
So what to make of the Lakers entering the playoffs?
It's only natural to draw on Jackson's other championship teams, such as last season's. The Lakers went 4-7 in their final 11 games, but those circumstances proved much different with the Lakers locking in the No. 1 seeding, Bynum sitting out the last 13 games because of a strained left Achilles' tendon and Bryant sitting out four of the last five games because of his sprained right knee. Meanwhile, the Lakers don't have much to draw from in terms of late-season adversity. The Lakers' championship years mostly featured strong finishes in April, including the ending runs in 1999-2000 (6-3), 2000-01 (8-1), 2001-02 (6-3) and 2008-09 (7-1).
It gets to a point, though, where comparisons are a useless exercise. Even amid the uncertainty about the Lakers' title chances, they're starting on a blank slate.
"We are anxious to get into it," Jackson said. "I think we enjoy playoff basketball as a team,"
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers' Head coach Phil Jackson. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times