It's hard to say when Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson
started to lose his mojo. Maybe it was when he signed that
monstrous five-year $30 million contract. Maybe it was when he
started spending less time on his Harley and more time in his
SUV. Maybe it was when the same man who wore a Panama hat
adorned with a macaw feather to his initial interview with the
Chicago Bulls started shilling for an on-line brokerage. Sure,
Jackson may again be coaching the best team in basketball, but
his mystique has diminished, the Zen thing has gotten old, those
enigmatic pronouncements no longer seem so profound.
San Antonio Spurs guard Terry Porter spoke for many when he said
last month, "I would like to see if all that Zen stuff would
work in Vancouver or Dallas." Every team in the league has
grasped the fundamentals of the vaunted triangle offense, the
foundation for the Bulls' six titles--"It's not exactly brain
surgery," Portland Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy claimed
last week. Even members of Jackson's current ashram have been
surprised by the coach's taste for convention. "I expected him
to do more far-out stuff," says Lakers forward Robert Horry.
"About the weirdest thing Phil's had us do is yoga. That's just
stretching and breathing, things I've been doing all my life."
Still, before dismissing Jackson by suggesting he's more sham
than shaman, we must acknowledge that he has imparted one
fundamental Zen quality to this Lakers team: preternatural calm.
On the heels of an embarrassing 29-point home loss in Game 2 of
the Western Conference finals, the Lakers ventured to Portland
last weekend for two crucial games. But if the games were so
important that 5,000 Blazermaniacs congregated in downtown
Portland for a rally, the hype was lost on Jackson. No sense of
desperation in evidence, he simply told his minions to relax,
have fun and enjoy the challenge. "Last year we might have
pushed the panic button," says L.A. guard Derek Fisher. "With
Phil, he's so loose and confident, you can't help but be that
way too. Our attitude was, What do we have to be worried about?"
Not much, it turned out. Withstanding a furious first-quarter
outburst by Portland in each game, the Lakers prevailed twice to
seize a commanding 3-1 series lead, draining the drama from what
many considered the de facto NBA Finals. Bearing all the
hallmarks of a Jackson-coached team, Los Angeles won with
superior team defense, impressive efforts from two stars, key
contributions from reserves and, above all, grace under
pressure. "Staying cool and winning tight games, that's what
championship teams do," says Lakers guard Ron Harper, who played
on three (1995-96 to '97-98) under Jackson in Chicago. "That
starts with Phil and rubs off on everyone else."
Take Shaquille O'Neal. He not only made a mockery of Dunleavy's
Hack-a-Shaq ploy by calmly sinking all nine of his free throw
attempts in Game 4 ("I felt like Pete Maravich," he joked), but
also was masterly at passing out of the double team. Or consider
forward Glen Rice, a nonfactor in Games 2 and 3, who lit up
Blazers guard Steve Smith, a boyhood AAU rival in Michigan, for
12 points in the decisive third quarter of Game 4. Or Kobe
Bryant, who scored 25 points in Game 3--mostly on fallaways that
called to mind another shooting guard Jackson once coached--and
resisted forcing the issue when his shot wasn't falling in Game
4. "We had to start making some kind of statement," said
Jackson, who through Sunday had the highest playoff winning
percentage (.729) of any coach in NBA history. "We stayed poised
and made the plays when we had to."
Harper, though, showed the most composure. In the second half of
Game 3, Portland's combustible forward, Rasheed Wallace, blocked
one of Harper's shots and unleashed an R-rated trash-talk
monologue, mocking Harper's speech impediment. It was an
unconscionable cheap shot, but Harper, who speaks with a
stutter, laughed it off. "I've been getting that since I was
five years old, so whatever words he uses will never get to me,"
Harper says. "That just shows what kind of guy he is." (Wallace
refused to discuss the incident, and Blazers p.r. personnel
denied it took place despite confirmation of Harper's account by
a number of courtside observers.)
Later, with 29.9 seconds left and the score tied at 91, Harper
again showed his poise. After Bryant departed from the triangle
and found an opening in the Portland defense, he zipped a pass
to Harper. Without hesitation, Harper let fly perhaps the
biggest shot of his 14-year career: a dead-on, 19-foot baseline
jumper that stood up as the game-winning shot. "When you've
played as long as I have, you've gotta make that shot," Harper
said last Saturday, his head covered by a hat with the
inscription DREAMS ARE MEANT TO COME TRUE. He followed those
heroics by scoring 18 points--more than double his season
scoring average--and grabbing seven rebounds in Game 4.
At 36, having endured a series of knee operations, Harper is but
a shadow of the dunking dervish who averaged nearly 23 points as
a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1986-87. ("I can still
dunk," he says, "it's just that I'm sore the next day.")
Nevertheless, he is precisely the type of battle-tested warrior
who can emerge as a postseason x factor. "I'm always one of
those guys who gets forgotten," says Harper, who claims he's
mulling retirement. "It was the same way in Chicago. But here I
am, trying to get my fourth ring."
Harper isn't the only former Bull who has given a strong
accounting of himself in this series. Buoyed by nearly a decade
of experience in Jackson's system, Blazers forward Scottie
Pippen has played heroically on defense, often single-handedly
altering the geometry of the Lakers' triangle offense. Roving
the court like a free safety, Pippen has double-teamed O'Neal
when the ball arrives in the post, forcing the Lakers to spread
their offense halfway to Corvallis. When O'Neal kicks the ball
back outside, Pippen jumps back out and plays exceptional
perimeter defense. "I always thought you could only guard one
man at a time, maybe one and a half," says Jackson. "Scottie has
been all over the place."
Not so offensively. As Jackson insinuated in a psychological
gambit before the series, Pippen might be an exquisite player,
but he is not comfortable carrying a team. Although he brought
his sextet of championship rings to practice last week in hopes
of motivating his teammates, he demonstrated little interest in
taking charge on the court. Defiantly youthful at 34, Pippen is
still capable of taking his man off the dribble and driving to
the basket. He is also a three-point threat. Yet when his team
needed him most, he passed up scads of scoring opportunities,
totaling only 23 points in last weekend's games. "I need to be
more aggressive," he said. "But I also feel like I need to get
my teammates involved in the flow."
As a team, Portland's great strength is also its great weakness.
The Blazers' $73.9 million roster boasts the kind of balance
that would, well, make a Zen master proud. (Portland dropped
just two games in reaching the conference finals, but no Blazer
ranked among the league's top 20 playoff scorers.) The depth and
the democratic attack present Dunleavy with a battery of options
and matchup possibilities and take the pressure off players who
might be having an off night.
On the other hand, the lack of a hierarchy and the absence of a
go-to guy become liabilities at crunch time. With L.A. nursing a
93-91 lead in the final seconds of Game 3, Portland center
Arvydas Sabonis, endowed with the mobility of Mount Hood,
foolishly tried to penetrate, only to have the ball knocked away
by Bryant. Ball game. In a decisive third-quarter stretch of
Game 4, two Dream Teamers, Pippen and Smith, stood by idly while
second-year reserve Bonzi Wells tried unsuccessfully to be the
focal point of the offense. Suddenly a three-point deficit
burgeoned to 10. "You've got to have players who know their
roles," says Harper. "Not everyone can be the star."
As for the Lakers, after Sunday's final buzzer sounded, they
strolled regally off the floor, led by their coach, who was
wearing his usual look of supreme confidence. The Rose Garden
crowd, which hours earlier had been raucous and hostile, was
hushed. There was little booing or taunting; one could sense the
fans' grudging recognition that the Lakers were more centered
and composed--in short, more deserving--than the home team. This
eerie quiet? Perhaps it was the sound of one hand clapping.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Palm Sunday Even quadruple coverage wasn't sufficient to contain Shaq, who went for 25 points in a Game 4 win that gave the Lakers a 3-1 series lead.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH LEAD FEET Bryant was quicker to the ball than Sabonis as he stole a rebound from the Blazers' big man.
"Last year we might have pushed the panic button," says Derek
Fisher, "but Phil's so loose, you can't help but be too."