Jackson reaches a Finals frontier
He has strategy for first Game 7
LOS ANGELES — Make no mistake, coaching an NBA team is tough under any circumstances. Coaching a team to multiple championships is a mental and physical grind. For Phil Jackson, coaching the Lakers along an unpredictable path to Game 7 of these Finals makes him wonder whether he can continue his record-setting career.
Sounding rested and looking relaxed during his news conference at Staples Center yesterday, Jackson acknowledged the toll taken by coaching a team to the cusp of back-to-back titles.
“I still get up and say, ‘This is probably the last time I’m ever going to do this,’ ’’ said Jackson. “I can’t imagine myself going through this again. It’s not only a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of stress and pain and anxiety, etc. But it’s something you get acclimated to.’’
From his playing days with the Knicks to his head coaching start with the Bulls to his two stints with the Lakers, Jackson has plenty of experience adjusting to playoff demands. Tonight, however, he will coach in his first Finals Game 7.
While recognizing the unique opportunity, Jackson must see that the hype and the pressure don’t overwhelm his players. From a coaching perspective, a game like no other must be approached and executed like all the others.
“You may be playing at a faster rate, you may be playing at a quicker elevation, spirit, etc. But if you’re not going to be able to do the most basic things, if you come out of your skin, in other words, if you’re out of character, things are going to go awry.
“So you have to stay in character. It’s something that you have to be able to confront and hold your composure in.’’
Asked if he preferred players acknowledging the stakes of a Game 7 or pretending it’s like any other contest, Jackson said, “I like the fact that they’re trying to remember what the game is about. The game is about the basic things, being able to dribble the ball and shoot the ball and correctly play the game. So those are the things I think are important.
“They’ll acknowledge it in the deeper sense. Sleep is a little bit different the night before, whatever. There’s more animation. Your nervous system is more activated.
“Those things are all part and parcel of what you do. But it’s being able to contain that and still play with energy that’s the important thing.’’
Given his Zen master persona and Finals experience, Jackson may know some tricks for balancing the nervous energy and focus. He is six games into his 13th Finals, tying him with NHL great Scotty Bowman for the most finals appearances in a major North American sport. With the Lakers’ Game 6 win, Jackson earned his 224th playoff victory, pushing him ahead of Bowman (223) for the most postseason wins by any coach in pro sports.
A win tonight would give Jackson 11 rings, two more than Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, and will keep the best-NBA-coach-ever debate at a healthy boil. Boston fans will never be convinced that Jackson should trump Auerbach, arguing that Auerbach shouldered the responsibility for building and coaching great teams at a time when head coaches practically did it all. They will also argue that Jackson has had great talent, from Michael Jordan to Shaquille O’Neal to Kobe Bryant.
Jackson knows he has been the beneficiary of great players and very talented teams. But the NBA presents different challenges today than it did decades ago. And Jackson deftly handles the weight of championship expectations, the combination of star egos and role-player abilities, and the limited attention spans of high-priced talent that can keep teams from realizing their potential.
In the midst of what could be another title run, he can step back and appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishments, the fact that by the end of tonight he may have an 11th championship.
“I came to that understanding last year,’’ said Jackson. “There were two championships that were missed . . . against Detroit in ’04 and Boston in ’08.
“It was a push to get this. I never anticipated still being a coach and searching for this. But when my kids brought out that [championship] hat after the game against Orlando [in the 2009 Finals], it kind of sunk in, the remarkable ability to have had this amount of opportunities, which I’m very grateful for.’’
Given all his accomplishments, it’s surprising that Game 7 represents a different challenge for Jackson, that he still has uncharted coaching territory out there. But the Lakers hope tonight’s result is nothing new, that they are enjoying a familiar celebration after the final buzzer.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.