He was asked and so he served, but Bernie Bickerstaff gave the distinct impression he will be happy when his term as the Lakers’ interim coach ends and he can go back to being a low-profile assistant coach with nothing more pressing to worry about than getting to practice on time.
Depending on what Phil Jackson says to team executives and when he says it, the Lakers’ 103-90 win over the suspension-depleted Sacramento Kings on Sunday might have been Bickerstaff’s last assignment as Mike Brown’s successor. If it turns out to be his finale, he will be the only Lakers coach to have a perfect record, including the win over Golden State on Friday mere hours after he took the job.
For Bickerstaff, a basketball lifer whose life was turned upside-down when Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak relied on their long friendship and persuaded him to take charge of an underachieving team, the return to what passes for normality in the NBA will be welcome. Asked whether he might have Darius Morris start against San Antonio on Tuesday because of Steve Blake’s abdominal strain, Bickerstaff laughed.
“I’ve got to find out if I’m starting the next game,” he said.
Although it’s easy to say Bickerstaff won two games he should have won at home against mediocre opponents, he may have accomplished something more.
Besides being smart enough to pound the ball into the post on Sunday — Dwight Howard capitalized on that to score 23 points and Pau Gasol scored 18 — Bickerstaff also was wise enough to quiet some of the noise that had been planted in players’ heads when Brown tried to impart his version of the Princeton offense.
Bickerstaff told them simply to play. On Sunday, they played simply and, at times, powerfully.
“He’s good,” Kobe Bryant said of how Bickerstaff has handled things. “He’s getting … out of the way.”
To Gasol, the difference in the last two games was a big one for players who had fumbled and stumbled their way through four losses in their first five games. They’re still not where they need to be — their 18 turnovers for 26 Sacramento points was way too many — but they’re more confident they will be rewarded for their efforts.
“I think we were trying to build something for the long run but here, there’s always an urgency to show results right away,” Gasol said. “So it was hard to see ourselves struggling early on and getting frustrated and not playing the way we knew we were capable of playing with the personnel that we have.
“But having said that, now we’re in a different stage and I think the last two games we’ve been competing better and playing a much simpler game and basic. We know how to play. We’re pretty veteran players that have been around quite a bit and we know how to get it done and that’s what we’re doing — we’re getting it done.”
Beating Golden State and then wearing down Sacramento, which was missing DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson because of league-imposed suspensions, is different from getting it done against San Antonio on Tuesday. That will be the toughest challenge the Lakers will face in this six-game homestand, a game they can’t freelance as they did Sunday.
“Pickup-style basketball, to be honest with you,” Bryant called it.
That won’t work against the Spurs, but the mental and emotional lift they got the last two games could help.
“When you see the ball going in the basket your confidence improves,” Bickerstaff said after the win. “That could be a subliminal message there.”
And an obvious one too.
Success breeds more success. The Lakers needed these two wins to keep the bottom from falling out, and although Bickerstaff will be a soon-forgotten footnote, he has done what was necessary to get the team through a tough time.
“It would be tough for anybody to be in that situation and you kind of have to feel for him a little bit because he kind of got thrown into the pit a little bit,” backup center Robert Sacre said. “I think he’s a wonderful coach and he’s the best guy to do this job just because he has all this wisdom and knowledge about the game.”
Bickerstaff knew enough to get out of the way during games, as Bryant said so succinctly. Bickerstaff also knows he will soon yield to Jackson or Mike D’Antoni, and he’s prepared to make a graceful exit.
“My job is to coach the basketball team until they ring the bell,” he said. "...I consented to do this for the organization and that’s what I’m doing and I’m not worried about the big picture and I’m not worried about the next picture..”
It was a successful team in the two games he coached. After the way the Lakers started, that’s no small feat.