Jackson earns pay on this night
After his team is humbled by Bobcats, he steps up to keep it in perspective
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you were searching for what exactly Phil Jackson does to earn a salary that's reported to be $12 million this season -- or about $2 million more than Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown make combined -- a trip inside the Lakers' locker room Friday night after their least-inspiring game of the season would, surprisingly, present you with the evidence.
Funny time to find it, considering this was after the Lakers' worse loss of the season without a doubt. Nothing went right for them. Not the offense -- Los Angeles shot 36.3 percent from the field and had 20 turnovers. Not the defense -- Charlotte shot 51.4 percent, outscored the Lakers by 15, 98-83, and matched them in rebounds (41 to 41) and points in the paint (36 to 38) even though the Bobcats are much smaller through the lineup. And not the intangibles -- DJ Mbenga couldn't even line up at the right spot around the key on a late Brown free throw and had to be directed by the referee where to stand and Jordan Farmar fumbled his backpack while taking it out of his locker after the game and re-aggravated his left pinkie injury.
What did go right was the attitude of a team that just was thoroughly outplayed but appeared mindful, rather than emotional, about the loss. It's an attitude that perfectly reflects its coach.
Odom, always an open book and willing to answer any question after a game -- win, lose, or draw as L.O. says -- stood in reflection, processing the answer he would give to the first question he was asked, a simple "What happened out there?" for a good four or five minutes internally before speaking.
"I think as a team we just have to realize everybody wants to beat us," Odom said. "They really want to beat us."
The Lakers processed this wake-up call as a realization, rather than with consternation.
Nobody hit the panic button. Nobody went off on a tirade demanding more touches or more minutes. Nobody put an enormous amount of stock in the Lakers' 17th loss of the season because everyone was aware the whole point of the 82-game regular season is to have a chance to win the 16 games necessary for a championship.
In the eight seasons Jackson has coached a team while it was a defending champion, he has gone on to win a consecutive title in six of them. And of those two times he didn't, one of them was because Michael Jordan (who was sitting behind the Bobcats' bench Friday) decided to play baseball. That's a .750 winning percentage that's even better than Jackson's regular-season winning percentage (.707) or his postseason success (.697), and he ranks first all-time in both categories.
It's the reason why Jackson protected his team after the game when it had lowered that .707 number, but really, he knows it's all about improving upon the .750 clip.
Jackson first diffused the situation by praising Charlotte ("They did a great job pressuring our guards"), then he compartmentalized what went wrong ("[The Lakers] put their heart into it, they just didn't put their mind into it"), then he rationalized the reason for his team's lack of energy (the Lakers got into Charlotte at 4 a.m. Friday after flying in from Miami) and finally he quoted Vince Lombardi offering some Zen of his own ("Fatigue makes cowards of us all").
Jackson could easily have ripped his team. He started off the night by throwing a barb Pau Gasol's way, calling his recent play "weak and sickly," but he refrained from ripping him again after another subpar 11-point night on five-for-14 shooting. Now's not the time to pile on the negativity. In fact, afterward, Jackson came into the locker room and pulled Gasol away from a pack of reporters, telling him, "I want you to meet my friend," and then brought Gasol into another room to spend some time with Charles Oakley.
Jackson's players took the same approach of not blowing the loss out of proportion.
"It's wasted energy [to get angry]," Odom said. "I think the identity of our team is to be patient."
Patience is a virtue, but it's also a gradual quality, one that makes it hard to pinpoint a specific moment of growth or decline. It takes faith and belief. When shared by a group, Jackson says he believes it's when a season can become a spiritual journey. It requires fans to develop patience to be able to follow along in the experience. On the one hand, the Lakers have admittedly lacked a sense of urgency this year, on the other, there is still a long way until June and they have to maintain a steady course. Getting too high or too low would harm the sustainability of that path.
"To win one [championship], you put yourself in a place mentally and physically that you've never been before," Odom explained. "I guess to win it again, after every other team in the league is saying, 'We're not going to let them win,' I can just imagine that it'll be tough."
Kobe Bryant, who somehow found the energy to score 26 points and grab five rebounds and almost single-handedly keeping L.A. within striking distance for most of the game, said he would "probably say something" to his teammates but was not about to dwell on the loss.
"You have those periods during the season when you hit stretches where you're kind of stagnant," Bryant said. "The important thing is when you hit those stretches that you don't go back. You kind of weather the storm and then come out of it a better ballclub."
In October the Lakers called for a players-only, closed-door meeting less than 24 hours after losing an exhibition game by 19 points to Golden State. Farmar said it will probably happen again but focused on the good things coming from it rather than the bad.
"We'll just sit down and look each other in the eyes and find out how bad we want it as a team and discuss some of the things we have to do to get better," Farmar said.
The team presented a near-unified front.
When Andrew Bynum made the comments, "We're just disjointed. ... We're just playing five sets of one-on-ones versus of playing together," ironically, his remarks came off as the individual agenda, one-on-one variety because of how his coach and the rest of his teammates focused on learning lessons rather than laying on criticism.
"We have to make sure that we continue to move forward and understand that if we want to repeat as champions, it's not going to be easy," Bryant said. "You got to bring it."
Jackson has brought his teams there six times already and is preparing to do it a seventh time, earning his keep in a loss to later accomplish his real job of securing the ultimate win.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.