Lakers right where they want to be
Choose your descriptions of the Lakers carefully, because Phil Jackson is parsing every last word. He took exception to a reporter saying the Lakers were "dominated" in the two games in Phoenix, and he chastised a reporter who suggested the coach was "happy" with the Lakers' offense against the Suns' zone, accusing him of putting words in Jackson's mouth.
So now that the Western Conference finals are tied at two games apiece, now that in the Lakers' worst-case scenario, Game 5 would be their last home game, exactly how should we describe the Lakers?
Do they realize what's at stake here? Could this be the end of Jackson's second tenure with the Lakers and possibly even the culmination of his coaching career? How many more times will Kobe Bryant get within six victories of the prize in his quest to bolster his credentials in the greatest-ever debate? Can Andrew Bynum play a major role on a championship team? Is this it for Derek Fisher?
Perhaps the fate of the franchise doesn't always hinge on its next game. With this team, though, it just feels that way. That's life in Lakerland, where the climax of every season is built up like the conclusion of "Lost." The Lakers couldn't be more comfortable if they were relaxing on 1,500-thread-count sheets.
"There's absolutely no doubt that we love this," Jackson said. "This is what champions are made of. We had this situation in Oklahoma; we had it with Denver last year in the [Western Conference] finals. It should be like this. This is what it should be if you have the best teams in the West going up against each other. It should come down to a challenge like this."
There's absolutely no doubt that we love this. ... This is what it should be if you have the best teams in the West going up against each other. It should come down to a challenge like this.” -- Lakers coach Phil Jackson
Of course, the challenges often seem self-induced. You never know when the Lakers are liable to show up with an insufficient effort or abandon the coaches' game plan.
Then again, the coach is always a threat to abandon typical coaching protocol.
Jackson could quell the speculation about his future by issuing a blanket "no comment" and declaring the topic off-limits while he's coaching in the playoffs. Instead he fields almost every question that comes his way, playfully putting just enough out there to keep the stories alive. He's not averse to keeping his options and negotiating leverage open, apparently not concerned that it could distract his players. Besides, it doesn't.
"We see it, but it's not a topic of discussion," Fisher said.
Even when he strayed even further off-topic and offered his take on the controversial immigration law in Arizona (which prompted a backlash that forced Jackson to issue a clarification and brought protesters outside the Staples Center), it didn't sidetrack his team. He made his comments in the middle of the Utah series -- a series the Lakers swept.
There's a businesslike resolve to the Lakers that remained intact after they lost control of this series upon its shift to Phoenix. They were knocked off-kilter by the Suns' zone defense in Game 3, then got waylaid by the Suns' reserves in Game 4.
Yet Jackson summarized the state of the Lakers in a single adjective: "determined."
One of the reasons Jackson earns $12 million a year is he doesn't panic, and neither do his teams. There's a fine line between cool/calm and cocky/vulnerable, and so far the Lakers have managed to stay on the right side of it. For all of the alerts that have popped up, they're still the only team that hasn't trailed in a series during the playoffs.
And you'll recall it was just a month ago when the Lakers were in the same position, tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder at 2, needing to rediscover a way to use their height and re-establish their inside superiority.
"This time it's a tougher opponent," Pau Gasol said. "They're playing really well, you can see the whole team having fun and playing together and making plays. They've been tough. Now it's our turn to get back and make sure we get that lead."
The Lakers say it so matter-of-factly. They know the trends are on their side, that it's unlikely the Suns will attempt more than twice as many free throws as them in Los Angeles, which is what the Suns did in Phoenix. They doubt the Suns' bench will be as effective on the road as it was in its 54-point outburst in Game 4. They figure they can count on Kobe to stay in playoff mode and keep giving 30-point games and one-sentence answers.
All Jackson wants is an early indication that the Lakers will be ready to make the tough plays.
"It's kind of who delivers the first blow that's going to end up being OK," Jackson said.
OK. That's the word Jackson kept using. The Lakers are going to be OK.