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Jackson Pushes His Luck Again

June 03, 2004|Sam Smith | Chicago Tribune

Could Phil Jackson have made a coaching error?

Jackson didn't take Shaquille O'Neal out after O'Neal picked up his third foul Monday in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. The Lakers were hanging on to a 45-42 lead over the Timberwolves with 2:11 left in the second quarter. Kobe Bryant also was in foul trouble. When O'Neal drew his fourth foul 70 seconds later, Jackson's decision seemed to be an elementary mistake: Leaving your star in the game in the first half with serious foul trouble.

But the Lakers survived and prospered. O'Neal played the third quarter without a foul after Jackson told him to avoid post-ups and possible offensive fouls. O'Neal drew his fifth foul three minutes into the fourth quarter, came back briefly, but left when Kareem Rush's three-point barrage effectively put the game out of reach. Minnesota then looked to foul O'Neal, who was seven-for-20 at the line.

The Lakers escaped with a 96-90 victory and the series. When the NBA Finals begin Sunday, they will be the favorite for their fourth championship in five seasons.

Jackson was asked about his decision after the game.

"We thought we needed the presence of Shaq out there to discourage them from taking the ball to the basket with us in the penalty at the nine-minute mark and them shooting free throws," Jackson said, looking serene and not the least bit uncomfortable. "Obviously, it did not work."

No one knew quite what to say next. Someone shook his head and said, "I don't know who the luckiest guy in the world is, but he is now No. 2" to Jackson.

Lucky? Good? Genius?

Phil Jackson is about to become the greatest winner in pro basketball, if not all of American sports.

If the Lakers win the NBA title, it will be Jackson's 10th as coach and he will pass Red Auerbach's mark. It will be Jackson's 12th overall, moving him past Bill Russell's 11 as a player and player/coach.

Yes, as we've all heard, he had Michael Jordan. But Jordan had zero championships before playing for Jackson. Jackson now has O'Neal and Bryant, who also had zero championships before playing for Jackson.

But O'Neal is a lesser version of his old self this season and so is Bryant, who has been drained emotionally and physically by his trial on sexual assault charges. Jackson has Karl Malone and Gary Payton too. But both are nearing the end of their careers, though only Malone will acknowledge that.

In any case, Rush ended up with the ball and hit six three-pointers to lift the Lakers. Luck? Coincidence? Or was it because Jackson played the second-year guard almost 20 minutes per game all season to get him ready for something like this?

The other day, Jackson was asked about this season. Instead of a tale of woe, he surprised again.

"Actually, this season has been easy," he insisted. "There have been some difficult propositions, but relatively easy compared to some of the things over the last four years. Our group functioned better as a whole. There were more external things going on but less internal struggle."

Which season has been his most difficult, he was asked. He offered that wry smile.

"Every year," he said.

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