- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Phil Jackson didn't get much consideration for Coach of the Year honors. Kobe Bryant was a distant also-ran in the MVP race. However the Lakers-Spurs series ends up, they both have proved that to be a gross oversight against the very men who won those awards.
Have you taken a close look at this Lakers team? Only its aura as a three-time defending champion remains unbroken. Disassemble it and you'd wonder how it's still in contention. Robert Horry, bless his weary small-forward soul, is paying the price for a year-long masquerade as a power forward. Brian Shaw, 37 going on 52, started at shooting guard in Game 1 and is averaging 21.4 minutes this series, which is more than he played in three of the last four seasons. Kobe, a guard for the last two seasons, is spending half of his time at small forward. Free-agent rookie Jannero Pargo is in the rotation. Shaquille O'Neal is surviving on offensive rebounding and free-throw shooting. Point guard Derek Fisher, expending every ounce of energy on defense, doesn't even think about going to the rim anymore.
And yet there they were, coming out of a timeout, smiling with 3:24 to play and down by four on the floor of the regular season's best team, giddy about the chance to play yet again under nut-cracking pressure, wholly confident that what they do would mean more than what they now are.
"It's not by luck," said Spurs guard Steve Kerr, who played under Jackson in Chicago. "It's Phil. He's a master at getting the most out of whatever he has and making his team feel completely confident that he can put them in position to win."
The Zenmaster's touch with stars is particularly deft. When referees and coaches met last summer at the Chicago pre-draft camp to discuss how free-throw violations could be handled without re-writing the rule book -- a discussion inspired mostly by the falling-forward style of Shaq -- Jackson cut short the debate. "He's supposed to be the best player in the game," said Jackson, according to an eyewitness. "Make him adjust."
And Shaq did, shooting a career-high 62 percent from the line, his first foray over 60 percent. But Jackson also recognizes when adjustments must be made for the Daddy, which is why he began posting Shaq away from the basket midway through the series. Whether it's fatigue or injury or the Spurs' big-on-big double-teaming strategy, Shaq hasn't been able to finish around the basket without throwing a space-clearing shoulder first. That made him tentative, which then made him ineffective. Moving him up to the pinch post allowed him to rely on his jump hook, passing and screen-setting instead of his power moves, and gave him space to attack the offensive boards or cut for a dish from Kobe.
Jackson stayed with that strategy until it didn't work, and then he didn't hesitate to dump both the plan and his gargantuan superstar. He sat Shaq for the first half of the fourth quarter in Game 5, riding, instead, the hot hand of Slava Medvedenko. Only when the game was within striking distance did he put Shaq back on the floor to guard MVP Tim Duncan.
Which is where Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich didn't respond in kind. The Spurs knew going into the game that their offense historically came up dry whenever they ran it through a Shaq-guarded Duncan. Yet they still went to him and, predictably, got nothing.
This is not, by the way, to denigrate Popovich. His best player is shaky shooting the ball under pressure, be at the free-throw line or in the post. His point guard, Tony Parker, is shaky under pressure at everything other than shooting, which is why running pick-and-rolls for him at the end produced just enough for San Antonio to avoid the upset. When Kobe hit a pair of threes to end the third quarter, trimming the Spurs' lead to a still-robust 16, the entire SBC Center and most of Pop's players swallowed their collective tongues. If it's possible for a home crowd to choke, this one did, screaming inexplicably at the referees and cursing its own team under its breath for the rest of the night. Only Popovich seemed unaffected, using his timeouts shrewdly and in each restoring his team's composure, if only for a possession or two.
Then again, the Spurs' and their crowd's fear was justified, considering who had just let everyone know he was open for business. Kobe's array of responsibilities have been expanded by the absence of Rick Fox, the gimpiness of Devean George and the need to contain Manu Ginobili. Still, the Spurs almost visibly shivered every time Kobe touched the ball in the fourth quarter. Bruce Bowen is getting kudos for slowing him down -- and yet Crazy Eight had 36 points in Game 5, including 19 in the final 13 minutes, and is averaging 35 for the series.
As has been discussed in this space before, the definition of league MVP remains purposely vague, but a guy who can terrify an entire arena simply by getting the ball in his hands is a pretty good start. Shaq still has that effect at times, as does Allen Iverson on occasion. Not to be too harsh, but Duncan isn't inspiring that response even though the Lakers are single-covering him with Horry, Mark Madsen and Medvedenko. He's a selfless superstar and his team had the best record -- that, presumably, is what won him the MVP award.
Thanks to Jackson and Kobe, though, one of the Spurs' award winners is probably going to have to break form for their team to win one last game and vanquish basketball's version of Dracula. Either Duncan is going to have induce some fear by producing in the clutch, or Popovich is going to have to take a page from Jackson's championship-winning book and have the guts to look elsewhere.