Rick Adelman isn’t exactly hard-up for career accomplishments.
He’s has coached three No. 1 seeds. He’s been to the Finals twice. He’s presided over a 22-game winning streak. He’s one of four coaches in NBA history to top 800 wins and own a .600-plus career winning percentage.
But when his Rockets outslugged the Lakers Monday night, he did something he’s never done before: Start a series against Phil Jackson with a lead.
It’s a safe bet that Adelman’s coaching scrapbook doesn’t include many fond memories of the Zen Master.
After all, Jackson’s Bulls spoiled Adelman’s trip to the 1992 Finals with the Blazers. Jackson walked away with a 4-2 series win and his second ring as a coach; Adelman came up short in his second bid for a title.
And Jackson’s Lakers bounced Adelman’s Kings from the playoffs three consecutive times between 2000 and 2002.
Adelman’s been tantalizingly close to breaking the hex. In 2000, his eighth-seeded Sacramento squad pushed the 65-win Laker juggernaut the brink in the first round before falling in five.
In ’01, the Lakers swept the Kings out of the Western Conference Semifinals 4-0, but Sacramento stormed back the following season, staking home-court advantage and a 3-2 lead over L.A. in the Conference Finals.
We all know how that series ended. The Lakers shot 18 more fourth-quarter free-throws than the Kings in a Game Six that disgraced official Tim Donaghy later alleged was rigged against Sacramento to extend to the series, and Los Angeles took over Game Seven in overtime.
The outcome in each of those seasons for Jackson? Title, title, title.
Oh yeah, and in at least one of those series, Jackson cut together motivational footage for his team that likened Kings point guard Jason William to a white supremacist, and compared Adelman to Hitler.
So when it comes to Jackson, Adelman might have some baggage to check.
He’s not the only one, of course. As the owner of championship rings from nine of the last 17 seasons, Jackson has spent two decades sending other coaches home unhappy.
Heck, Adelman isn’t Jackson’s only past victim coaching in these playoffs.
Jackson has already sent Jerry Sloan packing for the fourth time—two of them Finals meetings.
George Karl was on the wrong end of the ’96 Finals with Seattle. His Nuggets took a 4-0 beating from the Lakers in the first round last year.
And Rick Carsisle was as assistant (and belated successor) to Larry Bird on the ’00 Pacers team that L.A. edged for the title.
But few coaches in league history have served as one man’s personal speed bump the way Adelman has for Jackson.
Even Pat Riley’s Lakers—who made the Conference Finals or better for eight straight seasons, with a pool of only 11 competitors in the West—never bounced the same opponent from the playoffs three times in a row.
This is the first time in four postseason meetings with Jackson that Adelman has enjoyed a 1-0 lead. And after coming up short with three Sacramento teams that thrived on finesse, Adelman is finally trotting out a team with some muscle in its corner.
He’s not out of the woods just yet—the Lakers hung around in Game One without the benefit of a single hot hand, and there are plenty of opportunities for this series to go sour on him yet.
If Adelman does topple Jackson, it won’t quite make up for the years of disappointment, the championship runs cut short and the Sacramento glory days that almost were.
But it’ll provide some measure of vindication, and more than a little satisfaction—and move Adelman closer to a ring of his own to round out his resume.
And if Adelman stumbles yet again?
He’ll further cement his place as Jackson’s No. 1 whipping boy.