BOSTON – Phil Jackson had limped all the way from the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room to the interview area, his aging hip bothering him almost as much as the huge free-throw disparity that had helped the Boston Celtics to a 108-102 victory Sunday and a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.
Jackson had passed Celtics coach Doc Rivers in a back hallway and offered not a word of congratulations or even a friendly "good game" as Doc had offered him. He merely pointed his finger and said, "See you in L.A." He clearly wasn't happy.
Jackson had finally taken a spot behind a podium that allowed his hip some relief and right away it looked like he was coming hard, the only question whether he wanted the $25,000 fine or the $50,000 one for blasting the referees.
His Lakers hadn't lost because they couldn't get a call – soft defense, offensive confusion in the third quarter and, of course, Celtics excellence can't be overlooked. Jackson knew that. It's never just about the officials, even with Boston having a 38-10 edge at the foul line.
Still, this is when Jackson historically stands strong for his guys. This is when he's one of the last coaches in the NBA willing to fight for his players, nine NBA championships providing all the gravitas needed.
What were you most struck by in the game, Jackson was asked, your fourth-quarter rally or your three quarters of futility?
He just laughed and here we went, right?
"I'm more struck by the fact that Leon Powe gets more foul shots than our whole team does in (Powe's) 14 minutes of play," Jackson said, even mispronouncing the Celtic forward's name to add insult to his 13-10 free throw edge. "That's ridiculous.
"You can't play from a deficit like that; that we had in that half, 19-2 in the first half. I've never seen a game like that in all these years I've coached in the Finals. Unbelievable."
First question and Jackson was ready to roll. Until, suddenly, he wasn't.
Somewhere in that old coaching playbook he wanted to make this about the officials, about all those extra free throws, about the foul trouble that cut some starters' minutes, about the point in the third quarter when Boston had shot 26 free throws to L.A.'s two. He wanted to make it loud and clear that this would change in L.A., maybe summon the old us-against-the-world mindset for his guys.
And then something stopped him from doing it.
Jackson was as embarrassed of the Lakers’ effort as his players should have been, recognizing that his team was painfully soft and distracted. Powe played a fine game, but without the Lakers’ half-hearted efforts – most memorably on Powe's fullcourt, uncontested drive and dunk in the third quarter – the second-year forward out of Cal is still an anonymous bench player, not a budding Finals hero.
Somewhere, Jackson looked like a coach wondering about his team's spine. And no one wants to fully extend their neck for such a group.
"I kept telling my team, 'We just can't play worse than this,' " Jackson said.
And if Jackson was hesitating, then is L.A. in every bit the trouble the 0-2 deficit suggests?
"I think my players got fouled, I have no question about the fact my players got fouled and didn't get to the line," Jackson said. "Specifically I can enumerate a few things, but I'm not going to get into that."
In the past, with a different team, in a different situation he might have gotten into that. If these were the Jordan Bulls or the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, there might have been some enumerating.
Instead he backed off and went with a halfway complaint that mirrored his team's halfway performance. He talked about a lack of aggressiveness and about poor spacing allowing fouls to be hidden by bodies. He gave the refs their excuses.
Jackson rightfully knew this game was lost when Powe cruised through the middle of the Lakers’ defense, when Boston was playing its best and most balanced ball of these long playoffs. He couldn’t pretend it was when Kobe was getting rung up for a technical for complaining.
"We just had to make a stand a little bit," offered Bryant on the technical he received from referee Dan Crawford. "Guys were getting hit going to the basket and not always being called."
And so that was what was left; the players having to enumerate a few things themselves. The coach either wouldn't or couldn't completely play along.
"You can't do anything because if you do anything they're going to go to the line," said Sasha Vujacic. "We went to line 10 times. It will be a different story in L.A."
Will it? It's not just the refs who must change. It's the Lakers themselves.
They can't go away from the triangle for long stretches. They can't settle for jumpers. They can't let uncontested dunks rain down without someone in green hitting the deck. They can't dig a massive hole that made a brilliant comeback meaningless. They can't let an Eastern Conference team win based on that old toughness stereotype.
"They were more physical than us," Luke Walton admitted.
Mostly, though, they can't play so weakly for such long stretches – "we just can't play any worse" – that their own famously fearless coach can't even muster the outrage to make a monster issue of a whopping 28 free-throw deficit.
Because if Phil Jackson isn't fully convinced about his Lakers at this point, who should be?
- Phil Jackson