Phil Jackson likes Suns, Thunder
Even the guy steering the clear-cut No. 1 team in the West has to check his rearview mirror once in a while.
Speaking after the team's morning shootaround in preparation for a game against the Suns on Friday night, Jackson said that Phoenix only realized their potential once Amare Stoudemire was taken off the trade market last season.
"After the All-Star break they were set, they started playing ball and they were good," Jackson said.
The Suns rode that solid play all the way to Game 6 of the Western Conference finals before bowing out to the Lakers, 111-103.
While some analysts predicted before the season began that Phoenix would drop out of the playoff picture now that Stoudemire is with the New York Knicks, Jackson said on Thursday the Suns were still "going to be a real good team." Later that night Phoenix marched into Utah and beat the Jazz, 110-94.
Jackson doesn't think things have changed too dramatically in the Suns' system without Stoudemire.
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"They really aren't [that different] but they miss Stoudemire's presence, that big body going down the lane dunking the ball," Jackson said on Friday. "[Hakim] Warrick played well enough in that position [Thursday] night to make them feel really good about the fact that he can screen-roll and get dunks at the basket, but that's not going to happen all the time."
The Suns are on Jackson's mind right now, but there is more competition on the horizon.
Oklahoma City was a team that pushed L.A. nearly to the brink in the first round of the playoffs when the Thunder tied the series 2-2 before falling in Game 6 after Russell Westbrook missed a potential game winner at the buzzer. A season before that, the Thunder went just 23-59.
"We knew that Oklahoma was going to be good just by watching them from the year before," Jackson said. "They played hard all the way through everything. ... So many young, kid mistakes would get them down by 10-12 points, but they still played hard. They weren't like giving up on the game. & They were still running their offense and doing the things that were the right things. They had a sense about playing that was really healthy."
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There was another team that emerged in the conference last season that Jackson didn't see coming -- the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks beat the Lakers twice during the regular season, but L.A. was able to avoid Dallas in the playoffs.
"I didn't see Dallas coming on," Jackson said. "[Mavericks owner Mark] Cuban really pulled the rip cord on, 'Let's get this team revitalized,' by bringing [Caron] Butler in there and changing some of the guard, that really helped them."
The Lakers will have to wait to play the opponents Jackson spoke about until after the new year: Oklahoma City on Jan. 17 and Dallas Jan. 19.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.