In the past, I've dismissed Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson from any blame in regards to the Lakers struggling in the regular season and playoffs. I did the same in 2002, against the Adelman-coached Sacramento Kings. In fact, Jackson was the last to blame during the Lakers' loss to the Phoenix Suns, after leading the series 3-1 in the 2006 playoffs.
Times are changing, indeed.
After the embarrassing 21-3 start to Game 6 Thursday night, and the beating Los Angeles received in Houston two games ago, it's difficult for me to not point a finger at Phil Jackson.
Despite the foul trouble Andrew Bynum seems to find himself in so quickly these days, he was essentially "fouled out" after going 0-3 from the field and picking up his third foul. Instead, Lamar Odom, who is playing through a recent back injury, played the fourth quarter for the Lakers, with Pau Gasol playing the center position, and both were non-factors on the defensive end against Houston forwards Luis Scola and Carl Landry.
This wasn't the icing on the cake, though. Since Houston Rockets center Yao Ming fell to injury, their point guard, Aaron Brooks, has been the catalyst in the two Houston victories. His speed not only takes the veteran Derek Fisher completely out of the game on defense, but also takes advantage of Jordan Farmar's lack of lateral quickness, not to mention that Houston's pick and roll is much more effective without a clogged lane, and Brooks can get to the rim three times faster than Gasol can on the defensive switch.
In addition to our glaring weaknesses on defense, Jackson's decision to rest Kobe Bryant for over five minutes to start the fourth quarter was absolutely ridiculous. After Bryant's poor start (2-8 shooting in the first quarter), the superstar guard shot over 50 percent from the floor to help bring the Lakers to within two after converting on two free throws during his 13-point third quarter. Where rest is much-needed for our superstars, Gasol played five more minutes than Bryant this game, and ironically, the five extra minutes would have been a bonus for the Lakers, if Bryant had played them to start the fourth.
Our offensive struggles need to be directed at our bench and role players. Fisher, Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown combined for a horrible 4-27 from the floor, 18% shooting. While Odom seems to have a legitimate excuse for attempting just five shots Thursday night, his 14 rebounds would say otherwise. Sadly, most of the shots missed by these players have been uncontested, and of the 27 shots attempted, 13 of these were three-pointers, with only one of those going in.
It's true that Jackson isn't the one shooting jumpers and bricking them, but you have to wonder why some of these players continue to be inserted into the lineups after playing so badly. Vujacic has shot 29% against the Rockets in the six playoff games so far, and 21% against the Jazz in five games the previous series. Walton is shooting a terrible 30% from the floor. Derek Fisher has duplicated Vujacic's mark, at 29% this series. This is all while Josh Powell played a very good Game 5, yet never left the bench on Thursday, and Lamar Odom hitting half of his shots and attempting just 12 shots since Game 3, when he threw up 11 attempts, making seven, his best game of the series to date.
Statistics show that the Lakers are in the better half of the league in defense, although what you view during the games won't necessarily agree with this. The Lakers are near the top of the pack in points allowed per 100 possessions, steals, rebounds, opponents' field goal percentage, opponents' three-point percentage, and forced turnovers. The problem is, their inconsistency makes it impossible to take a lead and maintain it. It's no secret that the Lakers are possibly the worst team in the NBA in holding a double-digit lead, and I'm inclined to believe that Phil Jackson's rotations are part of why this is a strong characteristic of this team that they cannot shake loose.
Jackson's delayed timeouts seem to be an issue as well. After Houston lost Ming, they transformed into a small ball team. Their ability to push the ball up the floor, force players to chase after them, and setting the pace for most of the game not only puts pressure on the Lakers' defense, but waters down their offensive production as well. More work on defense means less effort offensively, as it relates to exhaustion and, ultimately, disappointment. The strategy to call a timeout before the bleeding begins would be what most coaches resort to. Jackson's timeouts minutes after the Lakers are on life support worries me. If letting the players "play through" their troubles is part of a championship concept, it would be nice if this was put into play in Los Angeles, not on the road, with a Rockets team feeding freely off of their crowd and a staggering amount of momentum from being the true underdogs against a team that was arguably the best in the NBA this season.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Houston Rockets coach Rick Adelman can make adjustments. He is coaching a team that has shown that they can beat us without Yao, Tracy McGrady, and with poor shooting nights by Ron Artest. In other words, two of his starters (Brooks and Scola) are playing like all-stars, even though their play before this series has never deserved all-star merit.
The triangle offense encourages spacing, excellent passing and movement. It's Phil Jackson's job to push this on everyone in the lineup, including Kobe and Gasol. The shots may not be falling, but the defensive efforts seem to stop and go like a traffic light, and these players' roles in the offense are so uncertain, it's usually a guessing game who will show up on any given night for the Lakers.
It's time for Jackson to adjust this Sunday. Define roles, preach defensive consistency, come out with better rotations, and coach the triangle offense the way he coached it in his days with the Chicago Bulls, and not hope to play a two-man game with Kobe and Gasol. While everyone else deserves part of the blame for not hitting shots, running the offense, and playing defense, it's Jackson's responsibility to rid this team of their arrogance and complacency, coaching the triangle offense, and reviewing tape in hopes to shed some light on their defensive lapses and mistakes throughout the series. Otherwise, inexperience and youth will continue to be Phil's crutch as a head coach in the NBA.