Defensive Task Is Big, and It Won't Be Easy

This was the Phil Jackson you don't often see, mobile and active, barking out instructions and criticisms to his players. On this day, when he talked about "two diametrically opposed philosophical systems" he hadn't wandered off into some esoteric discussion, he was talking defense.

The Lakers had to talk about defense, had to seriously consider how they've been playing it after surrendering 114 points to the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night in their first loss of the season. This came one day after the San Antonio Spurs had scored 117 in a double-overtime game, and marked the third consecutive game in which the Laker opponent had shot at least 46% from three-point range.

Six games into the season, Jackson has seen enough of his revamped roster to get a feel for his players. Now he's dipping into his past and implementing a new defensive approach for the Lakers -- which is similar to the tactics he employed in his latter years as coach of the Chicago Bulls, when he utilized the big perimeter lineup of Michael Jordan and Ron Harper at guard and Scottie Pippen at small forward.

"The three guys were able to switch on the outside and we keep our big guys intact doing the job inside to protect the middle and see what they can do with it," Jackson said. "Not have as much extension on the defense, but a little more compact, with size as opposed to speed and pressure and quickness. We're going to see if we can make that adjustment in the next couple weeks. When you have an offense as intricate as ours, we haven't had a whole lot of time to practice defense.

"Today was some defensive things, run a little bit, get this out of our system, being in New Orleans."

The Lakers spent more than 2 1/2 days in the Big Easy, where temptation lurked right around the corner from their French Quarter hotel. But this wasn't a vacation. Jackson put every player who played fewer than 20 minutes in Friday's game -- from rookie Luke Walton to veteran Horace Grant -- through a three-on-three session on the small basketball court at the century-old New Orleans Athletic Club on Saturday. Sunday, he got them up at 8 a.m. (6 a.m Pacific time, as Shaquille O'Neal noted) and put them through a tough practice that resulted in an ankle sprain for Gary Payton and a cut lip for Derek Fisher.

"Everybody's got to bend," Jackson said. "Kobe [Bryant] has got to stop being as reckless defensively as he's been. And we have to get some solid play from Devean [George]."

While he's trying to break the bad habits of his returning players, he must break in his new stars, Payton and Karl Malone.

"Our first unit's still feeling how to play with each other," Jackson said. "Gary's used to a switching defense. Seattle's been switching all of the time.

"Karl's been in a very static, non-switching defense. They're coming from two diametrically opposed philosophical systems to a team in which we've always kind of protected Shaquille and let him rove in the middle to do what he has to do to protect the middle."

The Lakers had hoped that by adding Payton and putting Bryant on the ball on defense they would shore up the perimeter. That hasn't happened. Phoenix's Stephon Marbury, San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and New Orleans' Baron Davis all have broken down the Laker defense with dribble penetration.

There also have been breakdowns in communication and understanding of the defensive approach. In San Antonio, Malone let Malik Rose cut to the basket unguarded because he thought O'Neal would pick him up. In New Orleans, Payton caught Fisher off-guard when he called out "switch" when the two men they were guarding crossed under the basket, away from the ball. The momentary confusion caused them to lose track of Davis.

Defense is like a relationship: it requires understanding and trust.

"It's a matter of talking, awareness and being willful within our team as we go through the process and learning who needs help when, how to be good teammates and come to their aid," assistant coach Jim Cleamons said.

"That's when you really feel teams. When they've played together, they're willing to sacrifice for each other, and we just get people in front of the ball carrier to make it difficult for them to get to the basket. When [opponents] make their pitches to the open shooter, will somebody be willing to get back out there on the perimeter to contest that shot?"

Trips often are considered a time for teams to bond by spending so much time together. Jackson also understands the importance of time apart. That's one reason he didn't have the entire team practice Saturday. He also figured that O'Neal and Malone, who both played college ball in Louisiana, would want to catch up with old friends. And every player could pick and choose the people with whom he wanted to spend time.

"It's really important," Jackson said. "They're such strong personalities. They also have their own groups. It's important for them to do that. The younger guys are finding out who's going to be in what pecking order, they're finding their little roles, and they're hanging out together. But the older guys, they're established, they know when to come and go, and it's important for them to do that."

From group dynamics to defensive tactics, it was a pretty active weekend for Jackson, two more days in the life of the coach of America's most-watched team.


J.A. Adande can be reached at

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