The Lakers' Edge When it comes to the playoffs, how much does the head coach really matter? In at least one case, it seems to matter a lot

April 20, 2003

It would be reasonable to conclude that Phil Jackson has already
done his best coaching this season. On Christmas Day his Los
Angeles Lakers stood eight games below .500 and were quarreling
among themselves like hormone-crazed teens at the school dance.
But with typical aplomb, Jackson steadied his purple-and-gold
ship, and the three-time defending champs, winners of 10 of their
last 12 games through Sunday, steam into the playoffs this
weekend as--what else?--the team to beat. ¶ The postseason
presents uncommon challenges, and Jackson, in 12 seasons with the
Chicago Bulls and the Lakers, has responded to them uncommonly.
He is seeking a record 10th championship ring, one more than Red Auerbach earned as coach of the Boston Celtics. Jackson has never
missed the playoffs; in fact, only twice has he failed to win the
championship. Of the NBA's 29 coaches, he is one of only four in
this postseason to have a better career winning percentage in the
playoffs than in the regular season (chart, page 58), even though
his regular-season mark of .731 sets the bar so high.

"The man has had such great players that one year I'd like him to
go into the playoffs with a team that has to scramble," says a
rival coach. "On the other hand, there's nobody I'd less like to
see on the other bench. His teams are always prepared and always
peaking at the right time. And when I look over at Phil, he's so
in control. That's what sets him apart."

If, two months from now, Shaquille O'Neal is again bellowing CAN
... YOU ... DIG ... IT! from the steps of the L.A. City Hall,
this question will hang in the smog: How much credit for his
team's postseason success does Jackson--or, for that matter, any
coach--deserve? Obviously, he's dependent on his personnel. In 19
seasons with three teams (the Lakers, the New York Knicks and the
Miami Heat), Pat Riley never failed to make the playoffs and
almost always made a strong postseason statement, but he's missed
the last two postseasons because his Heat is talent-thin. "A lot
of coaches don't have the luxury of knowing they're going to be
in the playoffs," says Jackson. "They end up coaching every
regular-season game like it's a playoff, and you can't drag your
team through that kind of intensity for 82 ball games."

So what does it take to drag your team through 16 postseason
victories, the requisite number for a title? Which coaches are
best equipped to make that run? And how much of an edge--Kobe
Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal aside--does Jackson really have?
Consider the challenges for the postseason coach:

The pressure is on, and your team better be ready. "There are
technical things to adjust to in the playoffs," says Detroit
Pistons coach Rick Carlisle, "but the biggest adjustments involve
intensity and urgency. When the playoffs begin, it's like a
switch is thrown." Jackson knows what to do at that point. Los
Angeles was a dominant 67-win team in the first of its three
straight championship seasons, but last season (58 wins) and this
season (48 wins through Sunday with two games remaining) the
Lakers were known more for their somnolent stretches. "Phil makes
players understand how different the postseason is," says Lakers
assistant Frank Hamblen, who has worked alongside Jackson for
seven years. "We make sure there are people to take care of the
players' family and friends so the players don't have to do it.
We cut off outside distractions. We limit press access. We keep a
practice schedule that is consistent. All this sends a message:
It's all about basketball now. It's all about intensity."

One advantage Jackson has in this area is that his coaching style
during the season tends to be anything but intense. When the
Lakers get into a funk during a regular-season game, he normally
eschews a timeout and lets them play out of it. "But during the
playoffs he'll call that quick timeout," says Hamblen. The
Sacramento Kings' Rick Adelman, one of eight active coaches with
a winning record in the playoffs, is another guy who low-keys it
during the regular season but raises his voice here and there
when the stakes go up. While Gregg Popovich won the 1998-99 title
by jumping off the bench and getting in the Spurs' faces from
time to time, the intensity of other coaches has hurt them in the
playoffs--master tacticians Doug Collins (.395 lifetime playoff
mark) and George Karl (.475) come to mind.

Familiarity breeds contempt ... and stagnant offenses. In the
postseason video nerds inherit the earth. Coaches ask for
breakdowns of not only every game against the current opponent
from that season but also games from past seasons. "You hear guys
on the foul line screaming variations of their opponents' sets
before teams even get into them," says Bulls swingman Jalen Rose,
who has appeared in 58 playoff games.

The Lakers' set offense, the triangle, is rarely well-executed by
imitators, but it is well-known, especially by its alumni. One of
Jackson's biggest playoff challenges was the seven-game Western
finals in 2000, partly because Scottie Pippen was able to share
his expertise on triangulation with his fellow Portland Trail
Blazers. But Jackson has always been able to make subtle
adjustments. Teams overplay to cut off the pass from the wing
back to the top of the key--Jackson substitutes a dribble
exchange. Teams overplay to stop the weakside guard from jetting
backdoor to the basket--Jackson sends a man over to screen for
the guard.

Obviously the triangle wouldn't be half as successful without the
creativity of Bryant (for whom Jackson has added several wrinkles
this season) or the post-up presence of O'Neal, but it is an
offense in which five people touch the ball. There is movement
and misdirection, not stasis. Philadelphia's Larry Brown has
forgotten more hoops than most coaches ever knew, but the 76ers'
offense will be limited in the playoffs because it's so dominated
by one player, Allen Iverson. That was one of the problems the
Spurs had last season in a 4-1 Western semis loss to L.A. As the
series progressed, Tim Duncan became their only reliable scorer,
and they had a limited number of spots in which they could get
him the ball.

The advent of zones only makes it harder for offenses. Several
teams will go into a zone just to thwart the plays drawn up
during timeouts to exploit a man-to-man matchup. Two of the
coaches who use zones often are the Dallas Mavericks' Don Nelson
and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Flip Saunders. In a 95-86 April 1
victory over New Orleans, the Mavs played zone the entire second
half. "I can't do that in the playoffs, because teams will find a
way to adjust when they see it too much," says Nelson. "But it's
a real weapon these days, if nothing else just to keep teams
off-balance for a possession or two here or there."

Tweak, don't overhaul. "The one thing I've found about the
playoffs is that you can't make radical changes," says Riley.
"You don't have enough time to say, 'O.K., we showed this for 82
games, and now we're going to do this.'" Jackson believes he
overreacted to Riley's defensive pressure and radically altered
his triangle during the 1994 Eastern semis, resulting in a
seven-game loss to the Knicks. In his younger coaching days Brown
would sometimes panic and revamp his offense after a playoff
defeat, but now, at 62, he studies film and emerges with a couple
of small changes that make a difference. In the 2001 Finals, for
example, he was convinced that the only way he could steal a game
was to pressure the Lakers' guards, even though the book on them
said that wouldn't work. Using that tactic, Philly won Game 1
before L.A.'s superior talent took over.

In parrying the moves of opposing coaches, Jackson once again
benefits from the flexibility of his triangle, which can be
initiated by either of its guards. "On the offensive end, you
have to break down pressure," he says. "That's why I believe that
you have to have a two-guard offense to win in the playoffs.
Because you can pressure point guards, you can trap them and you
can destroy their timing. Even if you have the best guy at that
position, I can throw two bodies at him when he's bringing the
ball up the court and get it out of his hands." That much was
clear in L.A.'s Finals sweep last year. It's lots of fun to watch
New Jersey's multitalented Jason Kidd, but when the Lakers' D
strangled him, the Nets couldn't score.

Find some specialists. Coaches often shrink their rotations
during the postseason; Jackson usually doesn't. "One of the
things he does--and he did it when he was here, too--is pave the
way to use 10 guys during the playoffs," says Bulls coach Bill
Cartwright, who played on Jackson's first three championship
teams in Chicago. "He plays guys in pressure situations during
the regular season, so it becomes normal to put them in those
situations in the playoffs."

Jackson needs neither big-time minutes nor myriad contributions
from these lesser lights. Tyronn Lue had his coming-out party in
the '01 Finals when Jackson turned him loose on Iverson, and the
undersized guard did a good job of disrupting Philadelphia's
offense. This year's Lue might well be Jannero Pargo, a 6'1"
midseason backcourt pickup. Pargo's very good at getting over the
top of screens, avoiding a switch, which enables O'Neal to stay
planted near the basket. One of the keys for the Kings might be
how quickly Adelman shuffles his deck of 10 bona fide players to
find a specialist. Might it be Keon Clark or Scot Pollard as a
hack-a-Shaq defender? Or Jimmy Jackson as a Kobe curtailer? And
you can bet that Popovich will find a special role for his
versatile ace in the hole, Manu Ginobli.

Playin' those mind games. "Your players are going to be ready,"
Adelman says. "The biggest challenge is to get them to play with
emotion but under control. It's about the body and the brain." A
coach also has to find a way to drive his players for those two
enervating playoff months while making sure he's not losing them
with the length of his film sessions or the sound of his voice.
"In the playoffs I'm more apt to pat a guy on the back than I am
to kick him in the ass," says Nelson, "because you want
everyone's confidence as high as possible."

Jackson says he pampers players a lot more during the postseason.
Of course, he's had tenacious competitors such as Michael Jordan,
Bryant and O'Neal to put the hammer down on the team for him. But
over the years he has also been a master motivator, employing
little gimmicks such as splicing cuts from a current movie (Pulp
Fiction and The Rookie have been a couple of choices) into the
game film.

Jackson has, in a sense, set up his motivational framework for
the playoffs by not over-motivating during the season. His team
underachieved far too much to make him a candidate for Coach of
the Year. But it's playoff time now, and every team that wants to
win a championship knows it must beat not only Kobe and Shaq but
also the soul-patched wizard pushing the buttons from the bench.

For the latest NBA news, plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to


The Suns' Frank Johnson is the only playoff rookie among the 16
coaches in the title hunt. Here's how his peers rank in terms of
elevating their teams' play when it matters most.

Name, Team Regular Season* Playoffs Differential

Byron Scott, Nets 127-117, .520 11-9, .550 +.030
Jim O'Brien, Celtics 116-95, .550 9-7, .563 +.013
Phil Jackson, Lakers 718-264, .731 156-54, .743 +.012
Paul Silas, Hornets 284-313, .476 11-12, .478 +.002
Gregg Popovich, Spurs 338-184, .648 31-22, .585 -.063
Larry Brown, 76ers 878-684, .562 64-66, .492 -.070
Rick Adelman, Kings 602-384, .611 53-50, .515 -.096
George Karl, Bucks 707-499, .586 57-63, .475 -.111
Jerry Sloan, Jazz 875-519, .628 77-76, .503 -.125
Don Nelson, Mavericks 1,094-828, .569 59-71, .423 -.146
Isiah Thomas, Pacers 129-115, .529 3-6, .333 -.196
Rick Carlisle, Pistons 99-63, .611 4-6, .400 -.211
Flip Saunders, 327-276, .542 5-18, .217 -.225
Doc Rivers, Magic 170-156, .521 2-6, .250 -.271
Maurice Cheeks, 98-64, .605 0-3, .000 -.605
Trail Blazers

*Through Sunday's games

Phil Jackson
"A lot of coaches don't know they're going to be in the playoffs.
They end up coaching every regular-season game like it's a

Don Nelson
"In the playoffs I'm more apt to pat a guy on the back than I am
to kick him in the ass, because you want everyone's confidence as
high as possible."

Rick Adelman
"Your players are going to be ready; the biggest challenge is to
get them to play with emotion but under control. It's about the
body and the brain."

Rick Carlisle
"There are technical things to adjust to in the playoffs, but the
biggest adjustments involve intensity and urgency. It's like a
switch is thrown."