Celtics-Lakers: The Zen master smells trouble

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 9, 2008

Phil Jackson needed the comfort of something familiar. His Lakers fell into an 0-2 hole Sunday night after nearly completing the greatest miracle comeback in NBA Finals history.

He eyed the box score and found all the familiarity he could handle. He intentionally mispronounced the name of the night's surprise star and decried the youngster earning more free throws than his entire squad.

Leon Powe earns more foul shot attempts than a team with MVP Kobe Bryant? "That's ridiculous," he said.

His unconvincing disbelief said what he could not. His veiled shot at the lop-sided officiating was role playing at its best.

Jackson does this when he knows his team is in trouble. His team needs something no referee's whistle can fix and the hall of fame coach is searching for someone who can help his dysfunctional Lake Show.

For most of Sunday night, his prized big men re-enacted Moses parting the Red Sea. The Celtics' players happily stepped in as the persecuted Hebrews seeking safe passage out of Egypt.

There was no sand on the court or magnificent pyramids behind the basket but Jackson would understand the metaphor if you told him. In continuing his starring role as the aggravated coach who works the refs long after the final buzzer, Jackson's non rant was just that.

He said privately a few weeks ago, and yet the statement became public, that the San Antonio Spurs were the only Western Conference team capable of knocking off his Lakers. If he did make such a remark, the Celtics reminded him why with a feast of open looks.

When the Lakers edged the Spurs 93-91 in game four of the conference finals, despite dominating them on the glass, he opened his post game remarks with a complaint about a missed call against Derek Fisher. No, he wasn't talking about the foul that Fisher clearly committed against Brent Barry in the game's closing seconds, but a last second heave that may or may not have hit the rim.

If it did, the refs should have given the Lakers a fresh shot clock and the ball. That would have forced the Spurs to foul with less than five seconds left, effectively ending the game. Replays were inconclusive and this columnist thinks it did not hit the rim.

Jackson wanted to remind reporters of this officiating lapse because he was mystified about something else. The Spurs did shoot 11 more free throws and benefited from many questionable calls but that was not it. He had to wonder how the Spurs lost the game, with 12 chances to grab the lead and momentum and open looks they normally knock down to do it.

He didn't need instant replay to notice Bruce Bowen missing consecutive wide open corner treys, his signature shot, and Tim Duncan passing up opportunities to attack a defenseless Pau Gasol.

Perhaps the opening to his Sunday post-game comments was his recognition of the answer: The Spurs could not knock down enough of the open shots to withstand manageable Laker runs. The Celtics have in games one and two and the Zen master knows he can only fool people for so long.

As he comes to terms with a fact some Laker skeptics believed for months, it pains him to admit his team's predicament. Maybe, he wanted to tell reporters, the Lakers are not as good defensively as people thought. Maybe they are not that good. Period.

Jackson sees that a few jabs at the refs cannot erase enduring images of a two-part second half. With the Celtics nursing a 12-point lead and the Lakers requiring stops and ball movement to claw back, there was Sasha Vujacic, the pampered Serbian shooter who is far from "the machine" he calls himself, and Vlade "Space Cadet" Radmanovic heaving contested jumpers. There was Kobe Bryant, the perfect player for these situations, who laughs at manageable deficits, and Pau Gasol, 5-7 from the field at the half, getting zero touches.

In one trip down the floor, he glared at the spotty player he calls "My Favorite Martian" and Radmanovic answered his coach's stare with a turnover that validated an earlier condemnation.

Does Phil Jackson know what to expect from his starting power forward before any game, one San Antonio Express-News reporter wondered?

"Absolutely not," he responded.

He would see Powe finish two monster dunks early in the fourth quarter with his porous interior defense apologizing instead of clogging the lane. The coach would much rather return to Denver, where the Nuggets' defense suffers from lacktitude sickness.

Then, there's NSP (Not Scottie Pippen) and Jackson has no idea what to do there.

"Confused," he said of Lamar Odom's play. "He looked confused out there tonight." The inconsistent Odom, to be kind, shot 5-11, scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

His adequate but hardly stellar production must have Jackson thinking: this front line is the next Bird-McHale-Parish? Maybe Andrew Bynum joins the fold next season and fills the obvious defensive void but the sidelined 21-year-old has nothing to offer a coach who needs plenty right now.

The Lakers can watch their 'almost did it' run in the fourth quarter and count on running their offense anytime the Celtics lose interest in playing the game.

The Lakers played defense without the 'd' and Jackson will be in further disbelief when he sees the Celtics doing the same through many stretches. 108-102?

One stupefied coach had one recourse after his team lost again Sunday. A mispronounced name and a brief, if not insincere officiating gripe, allowed him to do what he does best.

In addressing what went wrong, he said all that he could without spelling it out.

Jackson's problem? There's no 'W' in familiarity.