Phil’s Biggest Mind Game
Phil Jackson sounded like a Phil-osopher again Thursday, spending as much time discussing psyches as he did strategies.
It has been a while since he has spoken in such esoteric terms. With the Lakers down two games to San Antonio in the conference semifinals and down two small forwards, Jackson is running out of time and options. This will take more than a few diagrams on the board. He said there probably would be a change to the starting lineup after Brian Shaw didn’t pan out, but what’s there to try? Robert Horry at small forward with Mark Madsen or Samaki Walker at power forward?
San Antonio has won all six meetings this season and it’s safe to say the Lakers no longer occupy any space in the Spurs’ heads. So Jackson tried to crack the minds of his own players.
He addressed Horry’s need to please and Shaquille O’Neal’s stubbornness. He called on the team to trust the offensive system that has won three championships here and nine championships for Jackson.
“There’s a philosophical concept that we have to hold in our mind when we play against [the Spurs],” Jackson said.
In other words, close your eyes, take a deep breath and think triangular thoughts.
What do the Lakers have left, other than a different mental approach? As Kobe Bryant said after that Game 2 blowout, the Spurs are deeper and more athletic than the Lakers. The Lakers are trying to extract a few more victories from that championship residue, that attitude and arrogance they got from Jackson.
Jackson’s “I’m-the-boss” attitude was the perfect solution for the underachieving Lakers when he arrived in 1999. His hands-off approach when O’Neal and Bryant feuded the next season worked; ultimately the two superstars and the team have forged a stronger bond, having discovered for themselves that they need each other.
In these playoffs, Jackson’s strategies have not been on point. Minnesota’s full-court pressure knocked the Lakers off-balance for the better part of three games. The Lakers might not have three games to recover from the Spurs’ successful plan of attack, which knocked the Lakers askew in Game 1 and decked them in Game 2.
“We thought they were going to play the same game they played on Monday night [in Game 1], and they had a different philosophy and made the adjustments and beat us to the punch,” Jackson said.
The Spurs are forcing O’Neal and Bryant to generate the scoring chances by themselves, outside the context of the offense. At the other end, particularly in Game 2, the Spurs used the attention the Lakers have been paying to Tim Duncan to set up the rest of his teammates.
So now it’s Jackson’s turn to change, and he sounds ready to ask O’Neal to use a little less force and act a little more like Duncan. O’Neal has drawn offensive fouls in his attempts to bull his way to the basket, causing turnovers and curtailing his playing time.
“At this particular time, he’s going to have to go away from pressure, or else they’re going to have him on the bench,” Jackson said. “That’s San Antonio’s whole philosophy, to create foul situations on Shaquille. Like it or not, that’s part of what basketball is all about, is creating foul situations on your opponents so he limits his time and his productivity. So we have to adjust to that.”
Jackson doesn’t like to admit that he reads the papers, but apparently he has seen enough clips to know that O’Neal doesn’t like to change his style.
“The statement that he always makes is, ‘I’m going to play my game,’ ” Jackson said. “Isn’t that what he always says to you guys?”
Yes. To use O’Neal’s exact words from Tuesday: “I’m not going to change my game. Ever. Ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. Ever!”
He also said, “Every now and then, Phil tries to make me like Luc Longley [the Chicago Bulls’ soft, jump-shooting center from 1994-1998]. But I’m not a token big man. I know this offense, blah, blah, blah, I know [Jackson’s] never had a dominant big man. But that’s not my game.”
O’Neal and Jackson will go through their feud modes, but they know their partnership has benefited both of them.
Last year in San Antonio, with O’Neal’s feet hurting and his activity level diminished, Jackson challenged him to be more of a defensive presence and rebounding force. O’Neal ignored Jackson during timeouts, said that he was sick of Phil’s yapping -- and went out and dominated the paint and the boards. Jackson had his old center -- and his old smirk -- back. His strategy had worked.
But if the Lakers do run their offense again, who else is going to score? Horry? He’s shooting two for 11 this series, and 33% for the playoffs.
Which is why Jackson is turning to the power of positive thinking.
“We have to instill some confidence in the fact that we believe in [Horry] shooting the ball and that he can shoot that shot,” Jackson said. “We can still survive it, even if he misses some. Robert doesn’t like to make mistakes. He’s a player that doesn’t like to shoot inappropriately or make mistakes. He likes to take high-percentage shots for himself. We just have to deal with that in an internal kind of way and keep supporting him to shoot that shot and encouraging him to do something.”
Jackson is four years into his five-year contract, getting close to that five-year mark when, Pat Riley once said, a coach loses his effectiveness with players.
Jackson succeeded in Chicago for nine years because the roster was flushed midway through, and Michael Jordan was refreshed for a second stint after a 1 1/2-season break. Scottie Pippen was the only player who stayed with the team for Jackson’s entire tenure.
Jackson spent much of this season in an unsuccessful attempt to get his team to play with urgency. Now that their run at history is jeopardized, he’s trying to reconnect with his players, trying to get them to believe in his sometimes unconventional methods again.
We’ll see if that smoke is incense burning -- or a dynasty going up in flames.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.