Andrew Bynum

NBA Tuesday: What exactly is it…you do, Phil?

Phil Jackson, your team could have ended the Rockets’ season today, but instead they served up one of their worst performances of the season, getting routed by Houston even though they were without Yao Ming! What do you have to say for yourself and your team?

“They didn’t anticipate the energy that they were going to come with,” Jackson said. “But you say as much as you can as a coach and then the players have to execute and do it on the floor.”

It’s amazing how often it comes to this, isn’t it? Phil does all he can, but his teams just don’t listen if the game isn’t a “must win.” The Shaq-led Lakers were always known for cruising their way through the regular seasons and playoffs, always sure they could turn it on when needed. Kobe’s crew that Phil’s been coaching for the past few years has played with the exact same mindset.

It must be that players who play in Los Angeles become lazy. What else could it be? Jackson’s champion Bulls squads never had these issues. They asserted themselves defensively every game, not selectively like the Lakers.

Either Phil used to be a motivational genius, or…could it possibly be…Michael Jordan? Jackson’s Bulls teams weren’t awful when MJ wasn’t around, but name one great thing the Bulls did when Jordan was tooling around in Double-A…you can’t.

I’m not here to say Jackson isn’t a great coach. I love Phil. I love the way he doesn’t feel the need to pace around and yell on the sidelines like his last name’s Van Gundy, or call timeouts every time his team loses momentum. His books are tremendously entertaining, even if the content is pretty self-serving at times. The Triangle is the only consistently effective offense in the NBA, he’s the only coach who could possibly tell Kobe anything at this point, and his courtside in-game interviews with overmatched sideline reporters are like watching a cat play around with a crippled mouse. He’s had the best NBA coaching career of anyone in my lifetime.

So why has every team he’s coached in the past decade lacked a killer instinct? Why have they always done the bare minimum to win, and not a bit more?

Jackson is very sensitive to any sign that his teams are burning out, which is why during the first two minutes of timeouts he stays away from the players. He spends that time speaking with his coaches, figuring out what he’s going to focus on during the 30 seconds or so he’s going to speak to them. It’s great that he allows the team to hash out their own problems during timeouts.

Unfortunately, game-in, game-out intensity will never be Jackson’s strong suit. When the Lakers need to make a statement, like they did in Game 3, they can play some of the most aggressive on-ball defense in the NBA. When he leaves it up to the players, like the earlier quote sure seems to indicate he did in Game 4, the Lakers play with less intensity than a college Ultimate Frisbee club team the morning after a Dave Matthews show.

A year ago, Jackson seemed so happy, so surprised that the Lakers were able to survive the loss of Andrew Bynum and beat the Spurs and Jazz in such grand fashion in the playoffs, he was content to just let it all ride against the Celtics (and we saw how that turned out). With the Thuggish-Ruggish-Nuggish looming after this series and the Cavaliers probably waiting after that, Phil might need to get out of his ergonomic chair every once in a while and start yelling or risk seeing his Lakers get dominated yet again.

Since Kobe will never have the ability to make his teammates eager-to-please like His Airness, it’s up to Jackson to make sure that Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza play aggressively. That Lamar Odom worries more about rebounds than points. That Sasha Vujacic doesn’t let his shooting woes or the referees bother him. That Bynum somehow comes back to life. That Kobe actually sticks to the offense and doesn’t let the doubts from playing with mediocre teams in 2005 and 2006 force him back into bad habits. That Derek Fisher only sees the court when it’s time to take a technical foul shot.

Jackson has often tried to get through to his team through the media, and what he said after Game 4 was definitely meant to sting. If it works, he’ll be the most decorated coach in NBA history. If the Lakers aren’t able to “execute and do it on the floor,” the Lakers might have to ask whose problem that really is.

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