Lakers fall apart in Jackson's exit
DALLAS -- At least the book on Phil Jackson's final season finally has a title now: The Unflattering Farewell.
One of the greatest coaches the NBA has ever seen deserved better than this, and that was the case long before his two-time defending champion Lakers made a mockery of the family name in their embarrassing, enigmatic and era-ending 122-86 loss to the Mavericks in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday.
Jackson -- he of the 11 championships and once-in-a-lifetime partnerships with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and even Shaquille O'Neal -- had gone in and out of 28 arenas this season without a formal goodbye from the counterparts he so routinely beat. Chicago was the only exception, of course, and those closest to Jackson were left wondering whether this was just an oversight or perhaps a product of the jealousy his personality and success so often seemed to create.
The NBA itself wasn't about to fake a love affair, either, and so it fined him for the final time on the day of his final game for comments about officiating.
"This, in all my hopes and aspirations ... is the final game that I'll coach," Jackson said. "This has been a wonderful run. [But] I go out with a sour note after being fined $35,000 this morning by the league, so that's not fun having a feeling like I've been chased down the freeway by them. But as Richard Nixon said, 'You won't be able to kick this guy around anymore.' "
Yet this was a new low, this deplorable and disgraceful way in which Jackson's own stomped on their coach's final moment without any sign of dignity. As 21,087 on hand continued the celebration that had begun during a second quarter in which Dallas dominated the Lakers 36-16 (17 coming from Jason Terry on an incredible 32-point afternoon that included a record-tying nine three-pointers), some Lakers took the easy way out.
Lamar Odom was the first to do so, barreling into Dirk Nowitzki early in the fourth quarter and earning an ejection for a Flagrant 2 foul. The lead had swelled to 29 points at that point, with Peja Stojakovic hitting one of his six three-pointers and Odom later admitting his own shame led to the cheap shot. It was the same hollow excuse given later by Andrew Bynum, the center who, less than a minute later, buried his right elbow into the armpit of diminutive Dallas point guard J.J Barea and sent him flying on the floor en route to his own ejection.
The poor play had been shameful enough, the continued defensive breakdowns and disjointed spirit that played a part in the NBA record-tying 20 three-pointers made by the Mavericks. But in a roundabout way, this was kicking your own coach while he was already down.
"They played better than we did, so to make the game ugly like that when players could potentially get hurt, we don't want to see that happen ever," said Bryant, who had 13 of his 17 points in the first quarter. "I think they'll learn from that, regret doing that. It's not something you want to see that in the game of basketball -- ever."
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak concurred.
"It's sad," he said as he headed for the team bus. "It's disappointing. I'm disappointed for Phil. I'm disappointed for the players. This didn't look like the team that we had on the court all season long. It just didn't look like the same team at all."
Added Lakers assistant (and possible Jackson successor) Brian Shaw: "It's sad, because nobody wanted to see Phil go out this way. The score is immaterial, but I think it's more the way that we played. If we played better and still got beat by 36, you could take that. ... The way it finished, Lamar and Andrew getting thrown out at the end of the game ..."
The Laker Nation would be well advised to forget this not-so-pleasing present and turn to the future, where there will likely be change beyond Jackson's chair and plenty of reason for optimism. But don't buy into Magic Johnson's trade-machine musings just yet.
Kupchak cautioned against the idea that Johnson's recent comments on ABC were an early indication of things to come. The Lakers' legend had all but written his favorite team off during his television analysis, then recommended Kupchak "blow it up" by trading one of his frontcourt players for Orlando's Dwight Howard as a means to keeping the dynasty intact.
Jackson called the comment "unnecessary" before tip-off, while Kupchak largely dismissed the notion raised by some fans that it was an in-house sentiment being shared publicly. Howard is believed to be eyeing the Lakers as a possible landing spot when he becomes a free agent in 2012, however, meaning this storyline won't be going away anytime soon.
"I thought Earvin was trying to motivate our players," Kupchak said. "He's great at cheering for us, and a lot of times saying stuff like he said can motivate a player to play harder. That's how I took it.
"I talk to Earvin from time to time, and I think Dr. Buss [owner Jerry Buss] does from time to time, and this moves too quickly for him to be intimately involved in what's going on day to day, so I would hesitate to think that was the case."
The obvious piece the Magic might pursue should they give up on the notion of retaining Howard is Bynum, the 23-year-old whom Kupchak all but deemed untouchable after holding on to him at the February trade deadline. In resisting the urge to hit the panic button then, Kupchak had given this group the chance to prove it could still be champions.
Yet even with the alarming way in which this once-proud group fell, a major makeover is not guaranteed. The Lakers have the league's highest payroll and a starting lineup that is signed at least through next season, meaning a trade is the only impactful way to shake it up if they choose to do so. And their frontcourt was hardly their only problem in this postseason, as the point guard duo of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake was a complete non-factor.
"One thing with our ownership is that they provide great calm [and] stability, and there normally aren't any knee-jerk reactions with the Buss family, so I wouldn't expect one now," Kupchak said. "But it's hard. It's hard to play three years in a row, over a 100 games [including the playoffs], and expect that you can play at that level forever. You can point to things along the way as a sign things aren't going well, but at the end of the day we trusted the team.
"They'd earned the right to try to throw the switch. And we thought they did it, going on that one stretch 17-1 [after the All-Star break], and I felt like we came out and played New Orleans well. So we'll sit down, talk to players, have exit interviews, talk to ownership and Phil, and we'll figure it out."
As Jackson left his family that had flown in for the game and tried to figure his way out of the Mavericks' hall of mirrors, he eventually saddled up in his trademark golf cart to hitch a ride into the Montana sunset. He received a fist-pound from a reporter on his way out, along with a smattering of golf claps from four Mavericks fans that he passed along the way.
There was nothing grand about his exit, no matter how much more he truly deserved. It was, without question, the most unflattering of farewells. Nonetheless, a Lakers future without Jackson has finally arrived.
"I wasn't happy with the way our players exited the game, on Lamar and Andrew's part," Jackson said. "It was unnecessary, but I know they were frustrated. And Barea was one of the guys that really frustrated us tonight. Other than that, the Lakers will have to go back and put it back together again, to have a team that comes back and challenges next year.
"It's a great franchise, and we all know that they always come back and get themselves back in the race. The Lakers are going to survive."