Phil Jackson stood in the interview room off a hallway in Staples Center late Thursday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves across the hall packing to go home, various Lakers wandering past, on their way to the next round.
He’d had his cigar, assuming he punctuated the evening in the coaches’ room in his usual manner, that and a series victory going a long way toward his daily trip to postgame tranquillity.
The Lakers, three-time defending NBA champions and playing something like it again, had won the final three games of the first-round series to eliminate the Timberwolves, and perhaps there was no better way to arrive at a second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.
So Jackson spoke with some confidence when he was asked what the Lakers had acquired in Round 1 that they could take with them into Round 2.
“We have to be a little quicker on the jump, as far as playing against opponents,” he said. “The Spurs are a team we’ve played many playoff games against -- well, not many -- but we’ve played playoff games against them in the last couple of years, and we know this team. We know them very well.”
The room grinned around him.
Two best-of-seven series against the Spurs in the last two years. Nine games. Four in 2001, followed by five in 2002.
Many series, “not many” games. It’s what the next series, beginning Monday night in San Antonio, runs up against: The Lakers so dominated the last two playoff series against the Spurs that this one is much less about the regular-season sweep by the Spurs than it is the Spurs’ playing to get closer to postseason even.
In three of the last four years, the winner of the Laker-Spur series eventually won the NBA title. They did not meet in the other, that being the first championship season in the Lakers’ current run, three years ago. Four years ago, at the end of the lockout-shortened, Jackson-dubbed “asterisk” season, the Spurs swept the Kurt Rambis-coached Lakers in the second round.
“We know they’re going to be pumped up,” Shaquille O’Neal said. “We know they’re going to be looking for revenge because of what we did to them the last two years.”
So the Lakers go from Kevin Garnett to Tim Duncan, from Troy Hudson to Tony Parker, from the fourth-seeded team to the top-seeded team, their fourth consecutive title out there beyond the Spurs, the Sacramento Kings perhaps, and then whatever pulls itself from the wreckage of the Eastern Conference.
They’ll play from the burn of the last two postseasons, smirk at the results of the regular season, stand in the arena that looks like a barn in the middle of a field Monday night and do what they do. For three years and one series it has been good enough, sometimes by a lot, occasionally by a possession or two, by the width of O’Neal’s shoulders or the breadth of Kobe Bryant’s wings.
For three years and a series, the NBA and its public have waited for the flaws to become unmanageable, for the last shots to go short, for the Spurs to do something about it, and now the next chance is here again, wrapped in David Robinson’s farewell and, maybe, Duncan’s MVP.
In those four regular-season games (O’Neal didn’t play in the first two), Duncan shot 34.6% from the field, and still the Spurs won them all. Robinson averaged 17.3 minutes. The Spurs committed two more turnovers. And Bryant averaged 31.5 points.
And, still, the Spurs won them all.
“Kobe had something to say about that,” Jackson said. “ ‘Maybe we can sweep them in the playoff series.’ ”
So, he was asked, would that be Jackson’s sense of the coming series?
“No,” he said. “That’s what he said. I’m just repeating what he said. I guess it’s a possibility. We’re going to give it our shot.”
He laughed. He could. The Lakers barely remember regular seasons. They’re not very good at them, for one thing. For another, they’re pretty sure the Spurs have a better memory for the playoffs, as well.
“There’s the edge; they know they’ve been beaten,” Jackson said. “It’s also incentive, if they want to use it the correct way. They can use it as a motivating factor.... They have added personnel and they have to feel that maybe their speed has helped them a little bit this year.”
Meantime, Jackson believes the Lakers played as well in the final two games of their first series as they had all season, especially on defense, and he’s sure he knows why.
“Well, motivation that comes with the playoffs,” he said. “Also, tension, focus, preparation, consistently playing the same opponent, the lock-down ability this team has in playing defense better and better against opponents game by game.”
The Timberwolves averaged 107 points in the first four games, 87.5 in the last two. They were much cleaner against the high pick and roll, which gets more difficult now with Duncan and Parker. The Timberwolves pushed and challenged and eventually went away, and the Lakers were better for it and got better from it, it would appear, just in time.
“We’re not there yet,” Laker guard Brian Shaw said. “There’s still room for improvement. But we’re getting better. I think we’re right where we want to be. The Big Fella’s playing with a lot of energy, he’s rebounding the ball well, just real active. We’ve seen time and time again, this time of year, he responds the way he’s responding right now. That’s a good sign.
“The slate is wiped clean now. They had home-court advantage last year and the year before. We feel comfortable and confident in our ability to go out and play on the road, and we’re familiar with that team.”
After all, there have been all those ... series.