In an embarrassing display that will have Lakers coach Phil Jackson happily saying "good riddance" to both his team and the NBA in general, Los Angeles frittered away its chance at extending its second-round series with Dallas on Sunday. Terrible defense, middling effort, lazy offense and a thuggish finish all marked Jackson's last game as an NBA coach. Lakers big men Andrew Bynum(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes) were both ejected after needless flagrant fouls, Dallas won 122-86, and even a deficit like that doesn't really showcase how one-sided this game was.
Ignoring years of evidence that points to the fact that the Lakers' offense is always at its best when it encompasses ball movement and the usual hallmarks of the team's triangle offense, Kobe Bryant(notes) came out gunning to start the contest. Bryant was hitting to start, but he finished with 17 points on 18 shots in the loss.
As it's always been with Bryant and the Lakers, this was a penny-wise but pound-foolish move. Los Angeles' offense became predictable, with the Mavericks either turning to a zone to keep Kobe out of the lane, or double-teaming whenever Bryant put the ball on the floor. By the second quarter, Kobe was leaving his feet to pass, nobody else had established an offensive rhythm and the rout was on.
Because of all the misses, the Mavericks were able to move the ball in transition, and because the Lakers weren't talking as Dallas advanced the ball, the Mavs were able to fire up a litany of uncontested 3-point shots. In the third quarter, Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) was seen consistently giving up on plays defensively, and, as a result, Mavs guard Jason Terry(notes) was able to match a playoff record with nine 3-pointers as Dallas pulled away. All the Lakers could do in response was to fire up quick-and-hopeful long jumpers on the other end.
By the fourth quarter, a dispirited Laker team had given up, giving out dangerous flagrant fouls along the way. Lamar Odom was frustrated with his poor shooting (he air-balled a 10-footer in the first quarter and was short on three of his five free throws) and tossed an elbow at Dirk Nowitzki(notes), earning an ejection. Worse, Andrew Bynum's classless and dangerous elbow shove sent diminutive Mavs guard J.J. Barea(notes) reeling as Barea jumped in the air for a layup attempt. Bynum was given the hook immediately.
All of this was in stark contrast to the serene, studied ways that marked Phil Jackson's coaching career. For 1,973 games (including playoffs) as an NBA head coach, his measured style helped emphasize togetherness, a cohesive spirit, and an ability to rise above the fray once anger hit the bloodstream. His team let him down in all of these elements in Game 4. And if this is the last NBA game he'll ever coach, this was a disgusting way to go out. The Los Angeles Lakers let him, and anyone who appreciates good basketball, down.
Dallas had the talent, temerity (these guys take chances, and it is fun to watch) and toughness to take out the Lakers. Los Angeles lost to a very good team, one that is well worth its status as the first team to advance to the NBA's final four, but one mustn't lose sight of the fact that the Lakers could have played better. For the two-time defending champs to abandon well-worn principals on either side of the ball, and then devolve into pitiful cheap-shot artists down the stretch was astonishing in the specter of their failure. Dallas deserved to win, let there be no doubt. But Lakers fans -- and the Lakers coaches -- did not deserve to watch a loss like this.
Jackson has left before. His much ballyhooed final season with Chicago in 1998 and his sign-off on the Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal(notes) era in Los Angeles in 2004 were well-documented. But he's insisted that there will be no return this time around. And though you can lob criticism at the 13-time champion (two as a player) for his inability to steer his Lakers in the right direction, at what point do you start to blame the players for consistently trying the same ineffective plays, hoping for a different outcome every time?
The Mavericks are to be celebrated with gutsy and smart moves like bringing in Peja Stojakovic(notes) to run at power forward midway through the first quarter, sitting Dirk Nowitzki in the process, or knowing exactly when to go to the zone as Kobe dribbled away. But Los Angeles is the real story here. A championship contender was just swept out of the second round as it abandoned all the elements that made this team so great during its three straight trips to the finals. A loss to the Mavs is no big thing; Dallas is that good.
But a loss like that? Full of terrible play? Full of uninspired play? Full of unintelligent play? Full of lazy play? Full of dirty play? That's inexcusable.
And something tells you that Phil Jackson, loping off into the sunset, is pretty sick and tired of making excuses for his team at this point. After Game 4, he's probably welcoming the early exit.