DALLAS (AP) – So this is how it could end for Phil Jackson, the guy who turned Michael Jordan into a champion, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal into champions, and Bryant into a winner without O’Neal.
To the Dallas Mavericks, no less, a team with a postseason reputation that is, well, pretty much the opposite of what folks associate with Jackson, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The two-time defending champions trail Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs 3-0 going into Game 4 of their second-round series on Sunday. Dallas hasn’t dominated the series, but has been the better team in every fourth quarter, wiping out deficits in Games 1 and 3.
Bryant considers the final minutes his time to shine, yet he hasn’t done it this series, missing a potential winner in the opener and missing 4 of 6 down the stretch on Friday night. Pau Gasol has been so bad the entire postseason that Jackson finally snapped during the last game, uncharacteristically berating his big man on the sideline.
There’s no reason to hold back now, not with time running out on Jackson’s career and on Los Angeles’ reign. At this point, it seems more like a question of when, not if, as all 98 NBA teams to go down 0-3 have eventually been eliminated; 59 were swept.
“I told them not to think about that,” Jackson said Saturday. “You’re thinking about winning tomorrow’s game, forcing another game in L.A. on Tuesday.”
His five kids, however, aren’t taking any chances.
“They think they have to hustle in just in case this is the last game that I coach,” Jackson said. “That’s a drag that I don’t need to have happen, but they’re coming anyway because they’re insisting upon it.”
Jackson is too into the Zen approach of living in the moment to be distracted by sentiment, or to think about how humiliating a sweep might be. Then again, he wouldn’t know. The winner of an unprecedented 11 titles, he’s lost only nine series in his previous 20 postseasons. He’s never even been down 0-3.
Bryant has been swept from the playoffs twice in his career, but it hasn’t happened since 1999, the year before Jackson took over. Bryant enthusiastically said after Game 3 that he believed his team was tough enough to still win the series.
At the start of practice Saturday, he already had his game face on. He said Jackson’s possible farewell and the chance of being swept are not on his mind, and that teammates “don’t have a choice” but to believe they can still win the series. He said the Mavericks aren’t doing anything to stop him, he’s “just not getting (the ball) where I should be.”
Bryant also said Gasol is playing OK, just “not playing at the high level that we’re accustomed to seeing him playing.” The numbers bear it out. Gasol’s average of 13.4 points is easily the worst of his playoff career and his 7.8 rebounds are the worst of his four postseasons with the Lakers.
Jackson said Gasol is getting shoved out of the paint by a knee-to-the-rear tactic that’s supposed to be against the rules. He said the Hornets got away with it in the first round, so the Mavs have done it, too.
But there’s more to Gasol’s struggles. He’s missing shots he normally makes and is taking some bad ones. Nowitzki has outplayed him on both ends of the court – again. The German is 7-0 against the Spaniard in postseason matchups.
During a timeout following a Nowitzki 3-pointer on Friday night, Jackson smacked Gasol in the chest and got in his face. Jackson said he does it about once a year, and Gasol said “it wasn’t shocking to me or anything.”
“I just wanted to see what point he was trying to make,” Gasol said.
The Lakers will have small forward Ron Artest back in the lineup for Game 4. He was suspended from the last game, which meant a new rotation and added minutes for Gasol and fill-in starter Lamar Odom. Jackson said he wants to try giving all of his key players more rest early in the game so they will be fresher at the end.
As for the Mavericks, they have all sorts of incentive to close out the series Sunday.
Avoiding a return trip to Los Angeles would mean more rest for Nowitzki, 38-year-old Jason Kidd and the rest of the 30-something guys who make up most of Dallas’ rotation. It also would remove any talk of a collapse.
If any team could claw back from 0-3, Jackson, Bryant and the three-peat-seeking Lakers might fit the prototype. And the Mavericks have a history of finding ways to lose in the playoffs.
Dallas blew a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA finals, and came as close as anyone to blowing a 3-0 lead, needing seven games to get past Portland in 2003. Earlier this postseason, the Mavs let a 23-point lead slip away over the final 14 minutes against those same Trail Blazers.
They haven’t lost since, winning five straight. They’ve played tight defense (blowing apart another of their stereotypes), Nowitzki has been terrific and he’s had a different teammate or two step up each game. On Friday night, it was Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic.
“We’ve got to stay on task and be resourceful and opportunistic,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
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