Will Adelman beat Jackson this time?
The Rockets' coach looks to change a historical trend in Game 7 against the Lakers
Phil Jackson has dashed Rick Adelman's dreams before. His Bulls beat Portland to capture the 1992 NBA championship, and his Lakers knocked off Adelman's Sacramento Kings in the playoffs in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Adelman has usually been fighting uphill against Jackson, as he has in this series. In fact, Houston's Game 1 win gave Adelman a lead over Jackson for only the second time in the playoffs. In this case, he did it in his second year with the Rockets, without Tracy McGrady, underscoring Adelman's proficiency as one of the best coaches in the league, even though he tends to be forgotten when the greats are listed. Perhaps that's in part because he's always been in Jackson's shadow.
There are those who wonder if it is now Adelman's time. Even with Yao Ming out, is the surprising play of Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry enough to tilt the odds in his favor? And what adjustments will each make for the latest chapter on Sunday?
"He's crafty that's for sure," Kobe Bryant said of Adelman. "He knows our system about as well as we do after playing us for all these years."
After not knowing exactly what they were getting at the beginning of the season in Adelman, the Rockets now trust him implicitly.
"He's been coaching longer than most of us have been alive," said Rockets forward Shane Battier. "He keeps finding a way to put us in position to be successful."
Which is all a coach can do, really. It's something, however, that Jackson seems to have struggled with this series. It's as if he has yet to find the button to push to motivate his team to play with some consistency, at least. And it's exasperating.
"Has my sleep pattern changed? Yes," Jackson said. "Your psyche gets involved in this as a coach. That's why I meditate and that's why I work on the things I work on."
Adelman was fired by the Kings in 2006, spent a year watching his kids coach in Portland, and then re-emerged with Houston while Jackson was trying to win a championship with his latest charge of Lakers. Both men admit to being kindler and gentler and what has emerged is a less sappy version of the mutual admiration society.
"In a lot of series, teams send stuff into the league and make claims that this guy is getting away with this and that," Jackson said. "You got all this underground stuff going on that shows up. Rick's always been a clean player. We both just want to go forward and play the game."
And thus, the chess match and gamesmanship has been about adjustments on the court and trying to figure out which personnel can exploit the other's personnel, who can get his team fired up and ready to play. The Rockets don't so much reflect Adelman's personality as enhance it by playing and practicing hard while maintaining, perhaps, the loosest attitude in the league.
"We don't have a chance to win Game 7," Brooks said. "But we're going to try."
Likewise, the Lakers are trying to enhance what Jackson tries hard to maintain: calmness when panic is about take over. Not that he doesn't want them amped up when they take the court Sunday, but amped within the system.
"You have to play with control," Jackson said. "But you have to play at optimum speed. So if you get hyped up and you try to play above the level you can play controlled basketball, you're doing a disservice. So it's a combination of two things. John Wooden said it best: 'Be quick but don't hurry.'
"We want them to play at great intensity but still with the level of understanding of what's happening out there so we can make adjustments."
Jackson traditionally has been far more demonstrative and involved on the sideline of Game 7s than in the games leading up. Perhaps the juices don't flow until everything's on the line, perhaps it's picking his spots to provide leadership so that his players know he means business. Adelman, on the other hand, is consistent in his approach and sideline manner.
Both will huddle with their assistants in timeouts, listen to what their players say and pay great attention to the flow on the court, who's making shots, who's moving his feet, who's giving the effort. Effort: that's the one thing each coach demands from his players. Who gets it wins Game 7, no matter whose time it might be.
Shelley Smith is an ESPN bureau reporter based in Los Angeles.