Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One

Phil Jackson leaves the game with wry smile on his face


This was not how you expected to see Phil Jackson walking away from the NBA.

After a series where he could not get his players to buy into the system, to make the extra defensive rotation, to play at their peak, then to watch the players unravel at the end and take cheap shots. You could sense his desperation in Game 3 when he went to an Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom front line — a lineup he had used for 2:19 all season long — and stood there hitting Gasol in the chest. All in vain.

Except it sort of is how we knew Jackson would leave, with a wry smile on his face and making a joke regardless of the outcome.

“All my hopes and aspirations are this is the final game I’ll coach,” Jackson said after the game. “It has been a wonderful run. I go out with a sour note after having been fined $35,000 this morning by the league. So that’s not fun and having the feeling I’m being chased down the freeway by them. As Richard Nixon says, he won’t be able to kick this guy around anymore.”

In a couple of days, even Lakers fans will calm down and Jackson will be remembered as the best of the modern era. A guy with 11 rings over two different teams, who had great players but got them to be great teammates. A guy who revolutionized coaching.

Largely because he approached coaching more like parenting. The goal was to raise an independent team that could go out on its own in the playoffs and deal with the pressures the game and opponents threw at them. That’s why the no timeouts during games. Why the calmness on the bench during games, even when his team stunk. He, like legendary college coach John Wooden, wanted to do his coaching during practices then let the players play during games.

“He was the white version of my father,” Shaquille O’Neal once said (from Alan Ross’ book Lakers Glory). “I do something spectacular, he sits there and says ‘so what?’ He doesn’t let me lose my focus. He stays on me all the time. That’s what I like. It’s what I need.”

That was Jackson’s gift — understanding players. Even Dennis Rodman. He treated each player differently, yelling at some while more gently prodding others. Just like no two children are alike and need different discipline to help them grow, so does each player on a team. Jackson got that in a way few other coaches do.

“He allowed you to have input,” former player and now Jackson lead assistant Brian Shaw said one. “I liked that about him. With some coaches it’s like, ‘I’m the coach, I’m the one with the power.’”

All that helped get players to buy into a selfless system. In the middle of the 1990s and the height of isolation basketball, the Bulls were running Tex Winter’s triangle offense, which demanded selflessness. It’s a system that is hard to learn not because of the cuts or motions, but because it is a “read and react offense.” Like an NFL offense, it’s designed to have different actions depending on where the blitz is coming from. It takes time to learn to read then make the right play, it takes time for a team to get in synch with that. It’s a thinking man’s offense when run right.

Jackson was able to get the supposedly impossible to handle modern player to buy into that. To make plays.

For all the talk of Zen and the chants in the locker room (and that did happen, as did group meditation and more) the gift of Jackson is that he got teams to buy into that. To raise his talents.

He was at times arrogant. And condescending. But he was competitive from his time as a Knick, while he honed his skills in the CBA. He figured out what could win and how that was part of who it was, then he passed it on to his players.

And they bought it. Most of the time. Jackson’s last team — and it is his last team, he is not coming back — didn’t, which is why it is odd to see him leave this way, swept out of the second round.

But he still has that smile on his face. And 11 rings.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.