Phil Jackson deserved better than this
In probably his last game, Lakers' coach endures ugliness of a humiliating defeat
DALLAS -- He walked away smiling, because you knew he would. Before the sun set here in Dallas. A month before he'd hoped it would set on his "Last Stand."
The end, for Phil Jackson, was simply the end. Ugly and unsatisfying and way too early for a team this good.
He deserved a graceful exit, but he got a humiliation instead.
And so Jackson sat pensively at the end, leaning back in his chair with no choice but to take it as the still-stunned crowd inside American Airlines Center let out decades worth of pent up humiliation in the final delirious minutes of the Dallas Mavericks' series-clinching 122-86 win in Game 4 over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.
His players could barely look at him. His assistant coaches could barely talk to him. They were as embarrassed as they were shocked.
This sight, this final awful plight for a coach they all hold in such high esteem, should've been enough motivation to bring them all together.
This end, so short of the history they set out to make, should've inspired enough fear in them to find a way to make this work.
But this Lakers team never made it that deep.
Its heart, its soul, was never really in it.
"That certain drive and bond that we've had in the past," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said softly from a quiet corner of the locker room. "That cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity.
"I don't know where we lost it."
In the past, the Lakers seemed to find it about this time of year. The struggle and adversity they faced in the first few rounds of the playoffs brought them together.
This season, it tore them apart at the seams.
In the next few days and weeks, they will all search for answers. Sunday night it was all still too raw and stunning to begin.
"I think we're kind of all in shock right now," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "In a few days, we're gonna look back and feel it, like 'Damn, we really blew that.' And it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt bad."
By then, Jackson will be on his way home to Montana, perhaps for good this time. The Mavericks will be in the Western Conference finals.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak will be evaluating whether large-scale changes need to be made. A search for Jackson's successor will need to begin.
All of these realities have been in front of the Lakers this season. And yet somehow they seemed to be confronting them for the first time Sunday night, when it all finally ended so badly.
It will remain a mystery why it took the Lakers so long to connect this season. The only thing clear is that they never did.
"There was just something that didn't click for this year's team," Walton said. "Talent was getting us through, but we ran into this Dallas team who really was talented and who played the right way, played like a team, and we couldn't overcome that.
"It was just chemistry. We didn't click."
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It's fitting, in a way, that the end of this era is so similar to its genesis in June 2008.
A hard, humiliating shove into the offseason at the hands of a hungrier opponent.
After that 39-point loss to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, the Lakers had everything to prove.
The next season they had to avenge the sting of that Finals loss. Last season they had to prove they could beat the Celtics.
This season they all just came back to give history and a happy ending a chance.
"It was a challenge that I would've felt unfortunate if I wouldn't have taken it up," Jackson admitted afterward.
You wonder, in hindsight, whether that was a good enough reason?
Whether wanting another three-peat and a fitting end for Jackson was enough to push them to the place they'd need to go to win it?
The best champions need to be champions. The Lakers only wanted it this year. Now, they are left wanting.
"I've been able to do so many things," Odom said, somberly and softly shaking his head. "So many things. But I would give it all up to be able to play in the championship round."
Somewhere along the way, the Lakers lost the heart that had made them champions before.
Or maybe, they just never found it.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.