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One Coach Admires Another

Times Staff Writer

Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy is again taking a low-seeded team to the playoffs and fielding questions about Phil Jackson, providing a brief flashback to years past, if not for Van Gundy’s kind, flattering answers.

Van Gundy, who once called Jackson “Big Chief Triangle,” was coaching the New York Knicks in the 1999 playoffs when the story broke that Jackson had been interviewed for the Knick job. Van Gundy went on to become the first coach to take an eighth-seeded team to the NBA Finals, ending all talk of Jackson and the Knicks.

Van Gundy downplayed the past when asked before Saturday’s game about Jackson and the Knicks’ mutual interest five years ago.

“Phil Jackson was available just like any other player was available, and they did talk,” Van Gundy said. “That’s smart business. I don’t worry about that.”

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Van Gundy called Jackson a “great, great basketball coach.”

“He’s someone that has accomplished a heck of a lot,” he said. “In that way I have great admiration for what he’s done. I don’t think you gather that much success without being great at what you do and he’s certainly great at what he does. In that way I think he’s someone to look up to and admire.”

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As boom microphones and TV cameras crowded closer, Houston center Yao Ming wanted to make one thing clear amid the talk of this series’ big-man matchup: Shaquille O’Neal is still at the top of the league.

“At least for now,” Yao said. “I think he’s a little bit better than I am.”

Yao then credited Rocket assistant coach Patrick Ewing with improving his game and allowing the comparison to be drawn to O’Neal in the first place.

“He sets a standard for me,” Yao said. “He tells me before a game how many points I should be able to score.”

O’Neal scored 20 points Saturday and pulled down 17 rebounds, though he made only four of 14 free throws. Yao scored 10 points, had 11 rebounds and fouled out late in the game.

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Forward Kelvin Cato, benched for the Rockets’ last two regular-season games for undisclosed reasons, started Saturday against the Lakers. Cato had not played since a poor effort last Saturday against the Utah Jazz. Cato had trouble controlling his temper in that game and was yanked by Van Gundy after getting called for an offensive foul because he slapped a Utah player.


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