This one is on Phil.
If the powerful Lakers unimaginably lose Game 7 and the Western Conference semifinals to the puny Houston Rockets today, the loudest, angriest thunder will crash down upon Zeus himself.
This one is on Phil.
There will be folks wanting to skewer Kobe Bryant, and certainly, while Bryant has played hard and smart, would Magic Johnson have let this happen?
There will be mounds of blame placed on Pau Gasol, and absolutely, he has been spun around by a Houston sprocket named Hayes, and I don’t mean Elvin.
There will be handfuls of fingers pointed at Andrew Bynum, and, yes, he hasn’t even been as aggressive as his scratchy knee brace.
There will also be frustration at Derek Fisher, and sure, he has been regularly beaten by Aaron Brooks while countering with the sum total of one forearm shiver.
But the conscience of this team has always rested in its coach.
The heartbeat of this team has always been pumped from the sideline.
The zing of this team has always started with the Zen.
This one is on Phil Jackson.
Today in Game 7, nobody’s reputation requires more redemption.
Nobody’s legacy is in greater need of liposuction.
Nobody needs a win worse.
Jackson, I have long maintained, is the best coach in NBA history.
But for the last couple of weeks, he hasn’t even been the best coach on the court.
He has been out-schemed by Rick Adelman.
He has motivated with all the power of a librarian.
He has worked the sidelines with less impact than Jack.
And what’s with keeping Bryant on the bench for the first five minutes of Thursday night’s fourth quarter?
Watching Bryant sit there while the Lakers failed to make a dent in a nine-point deficit during the most crucial time of the game led to a crucial certainty.
This one is on Phil.
If the Lakers win today, he can smugly shrug, gently scold, chalk up the difficulty to part of the process, and start making plans for inevitable outcoaching of George Karl.
But if the Lakers lose today, nobody has more explaining to do.
Why did Jackson spend the entire series openly unconcerned? Not once has he expressed surprised anger or even mild irritation, which makes him the only one in this town.
Even when he publicly cursed after the awful Game 4, it was not a curse of frustration, but a curse that praised the Rockets.
Is this lack of effort not getting to him like everyone else? And if it’s not, is this sending his team the wrong message?
“Has my sleep pattern changed? Yes,” he admitted Saturday. “Your psyche gets involved in this as a coach. That’s why I meditate.”
So the team’s malingering does bother him. But he doesn’t seem to be willing to show that, or the Lakers have lost interest in listening to it.
Even Saturday, a day before the biggest game of the season, he said that the tone would be set by the other guys.
When asked what Lakers team would show up, he said, “I think it’s more about which Houston team shows up. . . . They’ve been the provocateur. . . . They’ve been . . . the team that goes out and makes a decided difference between games.”
He even gave credit to Adelman, in words that were never heard several years ago when his swaggering Lakers beat Adelman’s Sacramento Kings in that momentous seven-game Western Conference finals series.
“Rick’s doing a great job of coaching over there, we’re trying to match him over on this side,” Jackson said.
When a blogger appropriately wondered whether this generous attitude was a reason for the Lakers’ passiveness, Jackson dismissed him, saying, “Have you been in my locker room? You haven’t been in my locker room.”
Somebody should go into that locker room, because something isn’t happening in there.
If Jackson is more impassioned in private, then the Lakers are in real trouble, because that means they have guys tuning out a coach with nine championship rings.
Jackson’s passivity in public has also seemed to seep into his game management. At times, it’s as if he still thinks he has Shaquille O’Neal and Rick Fox and Robert Horry.
Those guys never needed early or quick timeouts. This team, littered with young guys who have occasionally wilted under the postseason pressure, needs those timeouts.
In Game 4, the Lakers were down 17-4 before somebody called a timeout, and that was Adelman.
In Game 6, the Lakers were down 13-1 before Jackson called a timeout.
Jackson also thinks he has the old Derek Fisher, insisting on playing him in minutes that should go to the quicker Jordan Farmar.
Fisher can be the hero in the next round against Chauncey Billups. But if the Lakers want to get there, they have to use more Farmar on Brooks.
And why again won’t Bryant play every minute today?
“He has to work too hard to get shots off, that’s not an option that I’m going to consider,” Jackson said. “If he can stand back and watch Pau do some work, some scoring, not have to carry the load, yeah, he can play more minutes.”
The reasoning is there, the reputation is there, the rings are there, but his team has backed him into a corner, and now only a victory today can keep Phil Jackson from the reproach.
“Wooden said it best,” Jackson said, summoning the gods in describing his team’s approach to this earthly Game 7. “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
Yeah, they better win quick, or he’s getting ripped in a hurry.