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Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is a 'lame duck' seeking a triumphant swan song

Jackson, in final season and on cusp of a playoff run that could net a 12th NBA title, isn't entirely joking when he says he's lost touch with players. But his methods, while unusual, are tried and true.

April 16, 2011|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson during Tuesday night's game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center.
Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson during Tuesday night's game against… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The coaching is telling Phil Jackson to stop, the NBA's championship sovereign referring to himself as a "lame duck" because he's lost touch with players who have done increasingly wacky things on the court. He was only partly joking.

But this is his time of year.

The feeling around the Lakers' practice facility has been more rigid leading up to Sunday's playoff opener against New Orleans, Jackson's cadence reflecting the importance of what lies ahead for a team that hasn't always seemed to be of championship timber.

He undertook his annual team exorcism last week, lighting a bundle of sage and taking it through the downstairs area of the Lakers' training facility — the trainer's room, the locker room, then onto the court and into the weight room.

It's his way of getting rid of bad spirits, of cleansing whatever ails the team during the regular season. He started it a bit earlier than usual, putting flame to incense after the Lakers sustained their first five-game losing streak since 2007. They won their final two regular-season games.

"The intensity is way higher from the players and coaches," forward Luke Walton said. "You can tell it's starting to turn a little bit."

The group meditation sessions haven't started in the playoffs yet, but they're on the way too, important chapters in Jackson's metaphorical book on postseason success.

He also instructed video coordinators Chris Bodaken and Patrick O'Keefe to insert clips of the movie "True Grit" into game video throughout the first round. Jackson told players to take particular note of the movie title, for obvious reasons.

None of this is new to Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who first started experiencing it all as a player under Jackson in the early 2000s.

"I remember that Phil's voice and his demeanor would change when we got to this point of the year," he said. "You just knew there was no messing around in practice and it was serious. I used to keep everything loose and joke and laugh in the regular season. I like to have fun, but even for me it was like, 'OK, leave that part of it alone.' Even to this day, I don't crack a smile or anything else because it's serious time."

Part of the Lakers' playoff run will be about Kobe Bryant's well-documented attempt to tie Michael Jordan's six championships. The other part will be about Jackson.

As a reminder, the Lakers' postseason media guide has 17 photos on its cover, all of them of Jackson. With a teary-eyed Derek Fisher after last season's championship. With a younger-looking Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant a decade ago. With Bryant, Fisher and Pau Gasol in front of the Tower Bridge in London last fall. With President Obama. With longtime companion Jeanie Buss. With his right hand on his chin, almost touching his trademark soul patch.

In the biggest-picture coaching stat of them all, Jackson has an 11-8 record, winning almost a dozen titles in 19 previous seasons. It's a mark that doesn't look special until it's compared to other highly respected coaches.

Gregg Popovich is 4-10. Jerry Sloan was 0-26. Red Auerbach was 9-11, Pat Riley 5-19.

Jackson, 65, is now chasing his fourth "three-peat."

"The incredible nature of what he's done I don't think has really sunk in on people," said Popovich, who has had plenty of playoff battles against Jackson as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. "To win three in a row as many times as he's done . . . we've tried 90 times and can't win a second one in a row. For him to do that with two different teams is just beyond my comprehension.

"And that's not blowing smoke. I don't know Phil. We don't go out and have beers. I've never been in a situation where I've gotten to know him. I just see him from afar and see what he's done.

"It's absolutely incredible to me, that kind of winning, that kind of pressure, that kind of persistence, year after year after year to get those wins."

The Lakers matched last season's regular season with 57 victories, though there were cracks throughout the ordeal. Gasol was sometimes irritated with Bryant's excessive shooting, Bryant was frustrated by Ron Artest's inaccuracy, Artest was angry that Jackson kept zinging him publicly and Jackson was irate after the team embarrassed him in a February loss in Charlotte — two nights before an even more embarrassing loss in Cleveland.

Jackson's eyes were rimmed red with ire that Monday night in North Carolina, his dry humor nowhere to be found in the five-second postgame sound bite he gave reporters before spinning back into the locker room.

A month earlier, at a dinner event sponsored by the L.A. Sports and Entertainment Commission, Jackson talked about losing touch with younger players, saying "my hip-hop isn't quite happening."

Assistant coach Frank Hamblen, who has been alongside Jackson since 1996, laughed at the concept earlier this week.

"That's not true," he said. "They listen. All he has to do is raise his voice and all ears are listening."

Back in January, as the Lakers hemorrhaged with losses to the Clippers, Dallas, Sacramento and Boston in a two-week span, Bryant said he would do "everything in my power to send [Jackson] off in the right way."

He has two months to prove it, as do the rest of his teammates.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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