DALLAS – Phil Jackson’s stride was measured and slow, carrying a limp that comes from hip replacement surgery. His face showed little emotion, and once he arrived at the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room, he quickly removed his blue blazer. There would be no celebration on this night. No championship trophy to hoist over his head. No memorable back-and-forth battle to recount. No Staples Center commemoration of his 11 titles and 1,155 regular-season victories.
On this evening, Jackson would taste not the sweetness of champagne, only the bitter bite of defeat. The final game of his 20-year Hall-of-Fame career was a debacle unlike any he had experienced, a 122-86 beatdown to complete a stunning sweep by the lower-seeded Dallas Mavericks of Jackson’s two-time defending champions – in only the second round of the playoffs. No, there was nothing to celebrate at all on Sunday. Instead, Lamar Odom(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) embarrassed the Lakers with flagrant fouls that led to their ejections in the fourth quarter. Instead, four of Jackson’s five adult kids dabbed their tears and gave each other long hugs before being whisked away to a private room as they waited for their father following an unfitting end to an unmatched coaching career.
"It's been a beautiful 20 years,” said Ben Jackson, one of Jackson’s sons. “But we don't want to remember this final game. Not this one.''
These playoffs had the makings of something forgettable for Jackson and the Lakers from the start. The Lakers needed six games to beat the overmatched New Orleans Hornets in the first round. And against the Mavericks, they dug themselves an 0-3 series hole after squandering two leads (Games 1 and 3) and suffering a home blowout in another contest.
Throughout the conference semifinals, the Mavericks looked like the better team, never more so than in Game 4 when they matched an NBA playoff record by making 20 3-pointers, including a record-tying nine by Jason Terry(notes) and six more by Peja Stojakovic(notes). With Dallas’ lead having ballooned to 18 midway the second quarter, the Lakers called timeout. Derek Fisher(notes) yelled at his teammates in the huddle while Jackson stood on the outside patiently waiting for him to finish.
“Regardless of how the rest of the game was played, we owed it to each to play better, stronger, harder and really together,” Fisher said. “I think we got ourselves in a hole in this series by not being able to do things as a group and together and collectively”
Instead, the Lakers continued to unravel. Down 27 with a little more than nine minutes left, Odom went to the free-throw line. After missing the first free throw, Odom shot a quick practice jumper before getting to his second free throw. Doing his best Kevin Garnett(notes) impression, Dirk Nowitzki(notes) swatted Odom’s shot hard to the delight of his laughing fans. Odom didn’t find it as funny. On the Mavs’ ensuing possession, he ran into Nowitzki hard with his shoulder. Odom was immediately ejected.
“I was a little embarrassed,” Odom said. “When I went to feel the rim out, Dirk … you know I’m saying? They were already up 30. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
But to do that in Jackson’s finale?
“We were losing by 30. What the [expletive] do you expect?” Odom said.
Bynum then compounded the embarrassment by nailing Barea with a forearm shiver a minute late. Barea still made the shot. Bynum was ejected and immediately headed toward the locker room, taking off his jersey as Mavericks fans booed him. Bynum remained stubborn to the end, saying he was “not disappointed in myself.”
“We were getting embarrassed. They were breaking us down. So I just fouled somebody,” Bynum said.
“Well, I felt there were a couple of players who felt daunted by the energy of the game,” Jackson said. “Their game was depressed. There were, personally, a couple of players who didn’t step into the performance that I’d like to see them step into.”
Said Bryant: “They played better than we did. So letting the game get ugly like that where players potentially can get hurt you don’t ever want to see that happen. We can learn from that. We regret doing that. That’s not something you want to see in the game of basketball, ever.”
Bryant had talked about the Lakers becoming the first team to rally from an 0-3 deficit, but not even he could work his magic to prevent the Mavs’ sweep. He missed all but one of his last 10 shots.
“They beat us," Odom said. "It’s like when you’re 13 or 14 years old and you have a little fistfight or whatever. You get hit in the mouth too hard and you realize, ‘I got beat,’ man. Of course, you want to play better. You know that. But, they beat our ass."
Pau Gasol also struggled throughout the playoffs, and after Game 4 seemed to confirm reports that he was bothered by off-the-court issues.
"I'm going to look back and see everything that's been going on," he said. "Try to handle it better. And whatever goes on, on or off the floor, just try to keep it that way and not let it affect anything that goes on on the floor."
Following the Lakers' sweep, Jackson came into the locker room and players said he stated, “The Lord’s Prayer,” and reminisced briefly about his career. While most of the Lakers players expressed sadness toward Jackson’s departure, none will miss him more than Bryant and Fisher who won five titles with him.
“So many moments go into what we’ve been able to accomplish as player and coach,” Fisher said. “I don’t think I ever will be able to repay him in any way for what he’s been able to do for me, for this team, for the city, for the franchise. There will never be another one like him. Regardless of who is the coach going forward, things will be different. We’ll miss the big guy on the sideline. But we all just want him to be happy.”
Said Bryant: “Phil … it’s tough for me to put into words what he did for me. I grew up under him. The way I approach things, the way I think about things, not just in basketball, but in life in general is because I’ve been around him so much.”
While Bryant has previously told Yahoo! Sports he hopes Jackson is replaced by Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, a source said ownership doesn’t appear to be rushing to hire a coach. There could be personnel changes on the horizon, too.
Former Lakers great Magic Johnson caused a stir by saying on ESPN that Lakers owner Jerry Buss is “probably going to have to blow this team up after the season.” Johnson suggested the Lakers go after Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard(notes) by trading either Gasol or Bynum.
Fisher took offense to Johnson’s comments.
“Ask Magic what’s going to happen,” Fisher said when someone asked what the Lakers needed to do to improve. “It’s only been a pleasure to be a part of the Los Angeles Lakers organization. I hope my future is still with the Lakers.”
With his kids listening intently at his final news conference as a coach, Jackson seemed relieved, showed little emotion and expressed no desire of wanting to return to the sideline. Eventually, he climbed into a golf cart to take the short ride to the Lakers’ bus. As he whisked by, Mavericks fans clapped and gave him a classy farewell.
The Lakers fell far short of doing the same.