Jackson’s title road again blocked by Rivers

Johnny Ludden
Yahoo! Sports
Jackson’s title road again blocked by Rivers
Phil Jackson didn't want to discuss Doc Rivers' coaching job after the Game 4 loss

The Los Angeles Lakers came to the sideline in the heat of their last, desperate push and listened to Phil Jackson stir their spirits with one final biting criticism of the Boston Celtics.

This team has lost more games in the fourth quarter than anybody in the NBA. They know how to lose in the fourth quarter. They’re just showing us that right now.

Jackson’s words were meant for the Lakers, to be heard only by the Lakers, until ABC’s microphones picked them up. Soon enough, all of New England had one more insult to burn as fuel. Doc Rivers smiled at that. Like all coaches, he’s bleeped his way through a few speeches he’s glad ended up on a network cutting-room floor.

Still, Jackson’s rallying cry gave the Celtics more than a few reasons to laugh. Know how to lose?

Doesn’t that describe Jackson’s own team?

The Lakers stand on the edge of another Finals collapse because their defense let down in the third quarter of Game 5. But after they clawed closer, after Jackson gathered his players on the sideline and delivered his rebuke of the Celtics, the Lakers again folded. They missed free throws. They let Rajon Rondo(notes) run free off an inbounds play. They fouled the wrong Celtic.

Just like two years ago, the Celtics have proven to be the tougher team – mentally and physically. And just like two years ago, this is a reflection of the coaches. Once again, Rivers is getting the best of Jackson.

Jackson has this much going for him: Unlike 2008, the Lakers return home to make their final stand. A week on the road can wear on anyone, and both teams know this series can change with a cross-country flight and a single game. But something also needs to change within these Lakers. For the past two games, the Celtics have been the smarter, sharper, more urgent team.

Jackson has long reigned over the league with a cool confidence that borders on arrogance. He doesn’t make many friends among his peers. He doesn’t panic, and he doesn’t believe in sideline histrionics. He’s seen it all before, and he coaches as such. With Jackson, there’s always the unstated belief that his teams will persevere. Most of the time, they do. His 10 championships validate him as the preeminent coach in the sport’s history.

But this is the second time he’s taken the Lakers into the Finals as favorites against Rivers and the Celtics, and this is the second time his team has been pushed to the edge. A healthy Andrew Bynum(notes) could make a difference, but Bynum has rarely been healthy in the playoffs. This is who the Lakers are. They’ve been terrific frontrunners in this postseason, and now their resilience gets tested.

Jackson has had few answers for the Celtics’ toughness, and that speaks more to what Rivers has done than what Jackson hasn’t. Somehow, Rivers has turned his three aging stars into grinders. Some nights they score, some nights they don’t. Almost always, they defend and wear on their opponents.

Rondo has carried the team in some games, but if the Celtics close out the Lakers for the second time in three years, Rivers is as deserving an MVP as any of his players. Paul Pierce(notes) hasn’t scored consistently. Kevin Garnett’s(notes) play has fluctuated, and Ray Allen(notes) hasn’t hit a single 3-pointer in four of the five games. The Celtics have won with defense and grit, and Rivers has found a way to get even Nate Robinson(notes), Big Baby Davis, Tony Allen(notes) and Rasheed Wallace(notes), all lost souls, to contribute.

The Lakers’ bench has yet to produce a single dependable contributor in these Finals. Jordan Farmar(notes)? Sasha Vujacic(notes)? If anything, they’ve regressed during the past two years. Ron Artest(notes) continues to hurt more than help, and it’s fair to now question whether Jackson, who has molded eccentric personalities into champions with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls, took on too much with this bizarro act. For all of Dennis Rodman’s antics, he had the basketball IQ and focus to lock in when needed. Artest is always one errant 3-pointer from letting his Queensbridge flood over.

The Celtics have their own combustible personalities. They howl and scream and curse – usually at each other. Two of them – Kendrick Perkins(notes) and Wallace – are one misdirected f-bomb away from a suspension. After the Celtics won two games in Orlando, Pierce brazenly tweeted, “Anybody got a broom?” He later claimed someone had broken into his Twitter account, perhaps the same someone who also hacked into his mouth when he screamed at Lakers fans that the Celtics wouldn’t be returning to L.A.

No, these Celtics aren’t always pretty or endearing or easy to like, but Rivers has convinced them to stand united. “I don’t know if 'calming down' and us goes together,” he said after Sunday's win. “I would love that, but it hasn’t worked.”

With Rivers as their guide, the Celtics have enjoyed quite the ride, and it’s not over yet. They treated the regular season as a six-month training camp, staying afloat just enough to secure home-court advantage for one round of the playoffs. Rivers canceled practices and cut back his stars’ minutes, anything to preserve his vets for the postseason. They’ve since beaten Dwyane Wade(notes), LeBron James(notes) and Dwight Howard(notes) and now stand one win from again cutting down the game’s biggest star and its biggest coach.

Jackson rarely seems bothered by much, but it’s clear there’s little warmth between he and Rivers. A disciple of Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, Rivers has never worshiped at Jackson’s altar. The two will grunt the occasional pleasantry when they pass in the hallway, but little else. During the Finals, they’ve traded barbs about the officiating that appear to be aimed more at each other than the refs.

Asked after Game 4 to comment on the job Rivers has done in getting the Celtics to this stage, Jackson quickly made clear he didn’t consider it a subject worth discussing. He views Rivers as a competitor, as he should. Only two coaches have beaten Jackson in his 12 previous trips to the Finals. Larry Brown was one, Rivers the other.

Five games into these Finals, Jackson is again looking up at Rivers, his season on the brink. Jackson is 47-0 in playoff series when his team has won the opener, and the Celtics haven’t taken the Finals yet. So he reminded everyone that his Lakers still have home-court advantage. That he figured the Celtics would finally shoot well for one game. That his Lakers can pick up their defense.

Know how to lose?

Rivers smiled. He’s not the one trying to convince his team it can still win.