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He can't just take up space out there

June 04, 2008|Bill Plaschke

A few weeks ago, you'll remember, Phil Jackson was asked if he knew what to expect on a nightly basis from Vladimir Radmanovic.

"Absolutely not," he said.

Laugh. Pause. Sigh.

Here we are in the NBA Finals, and Absolutely Not is guarding Absolutely Money.

Absolutely Not will have to defend the Boston Celtics' most explosive scorer and relentless attacker.

Absolutely Not must stop a guy who scored 41 points in a Game 7 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Vladimir Radmanovic must defend Paul Pierce.

With Lakers championship hopes perhaps riding on it.

Funny, huh?

"I don't joke about things like that," Radmanovic said after Tuesday's practice. "People joke about things like that, I punch them."

He slammed his left fist into his right hand.

Then he smiled.

Yeah, that's him, the most unknown, unpredictable and unexplainable of Lakers starters.

You know how coaches sometimes talk about their favorite players?

Jackson once called Radmanovic his "favorite Martian."

And he's guarding Paul Pierce?

You know how coaches are always talking about the importance of spacing?

Jackson once called Radmanovic a "space cadet."

And he's guarding Paul Pierce?

The coach has publicly, if not seriously, urged his erratically gifted forward to seek professional help.

"No one has been able to do anything with [his] head for a while," Jackson said. "Something is wrong with it."

And he's guarding, well, you know.

The most delicious part of it all is that Pierce's nickname is "the Truth" and he's being guarded by a guy whose most celebrated Lakers move has been a lie.

Radmanovic, you may remember, separated his shoulder during last season's All-Star break and initially said he fell on some Park City, Utah, ice.

Later he admitted that, in fact, he had been injured while snowboarding, an activity directly forbidden in his then-new five-year, $30.2-million contract.

Because the injury essentially ended his chances of being effective for the rest of the season, the Lakers could have sent him packing, but instead fined him $500,000 and subjected him to constant harassing from Jackson.

More than a year and a bunch of playoff wins later, the 6-foot-10 shooter has become an interesting addition to the starting lineup.

Sometimes he makes brilliant three-pointers (41% during the regular season) and sometimes he doesn't (37% in the playoffs)

Sometimes he grabs the ball (17 playoff offensive rebounds) and sometimes he doesn't (17 playoff turnovers).

"My job is not to be the star, my job is to punish the other team for coming off of me and guarding someone else," he said.

And sometimes he just punishes us, like when I asked him about that snowboarding incident.

"If I didn't get hurt, I would do it again," he said.

What?

"It was beautiful up there, I was having a great time until I fell down," he said.

Oh, c'mon.

"I'm an adrenaline junkie, I always think something like that wouldn't happen to me," he said.

OK, so now that it did happen, would you do it again?

The smile left his face.

"You just asked me if I would like to go to prison," he said. "No, no, never again, I'm not doing anything while I'm an NBA player, nothing, never."

So now that he's learned his lesson, can he learn to guard Pierce?

While some in the organization are quietly worried, there's no way his teammates are going to let him guard Pierce alone. In previous Lakers playoff series, nobody received more help than Radmanovic did.

Around Denver's Carmelo Anthony, there was a crowd. Around Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, there were elbows.

And at some points in the San Antonio series, Kobe Bryant simply jumped in front of Manu Ginobili like, here, I've got this.

"It's like, when he was playing Carmelo, we all swarmed him," said Bryant. "We have to support each other. We have to have each other's backs."

Plus, in this series the Lakers will also have Trevor Ariza, who can guard Pierce easier on his own.

Radmanovic is working hard just the same, studying DVDs of Pierce's moves on his laptop computers, planning for the moment that could offer him a final Lakers vindication.

He's been toughened for this by Jackson, whose constant barbs have actually been embraced.

"As hard as he is, when he says something bad to you, he doesn't mind if you say something bad back to him," Radmanovic said. "You're able to be yourself around him, say stupid things you don't mean."

And he's been pushed toward this by a Lakers team that has not allowed him to dwell on his faults, but rather celebrate his rainbow-like, 25-foot triumphs.

"This is what basketball is about, you surprise everybody," he said. "Sometimes I even surprise myself."

Like when I told him that some people thought he was the key to the series.

"Then I'll unlock the door," he said, his eyes brightening.

Um, er, absolutely.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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