Phil Jackson and the elephant

“Let’s talk about the playoffs, OK?” Phil Jackson said.

Only he didn’t, at least to the level of detail he usually does when the postseason rolls around and Jackson customarily becomes very x-and-o oriented. The media wasn’t that interested in hearing how the Lakers match up with the Hornets, in part because it’s a first-round series that will go beyond four games only if the Lakers display the inconsistent effort that has plagued them throughout the season. There are far too many big-picture questions to zero in on execution of the triangle offense.

The enigmatic nature of this squad was one of the topics of conversation, with Jackson admitting that the last 25 games of the season “don’t make sense in a lot of ways” in that the Lakers had a 17-1 stretch followed by a five-game losing streak, followed by back-to-back victories.

“Some of it’s about losing focus,” Jackson said.

You wonder if Jackson himself will have his customary focus as he enters what he says will be the final playoff run of his glorious coaching career. His pending retirement will be a recurring theme, in part because he’ll probably keep taking questions on it. Last year he spent a remarkable amount of time discussing whether or not he’d be returning, often right up until the final hour before playoff games. Jackson knows that simply ignoring a topic won’t make it go away.

“It’s the elephant in the living room,” he said of his retirement. “Or in the bedroom, depending on where you want to put that elephant.”

He’s been through a similar situation before, when he entered the Bulls’ three-peat quest in the 1998 playoffs with the idea that he wouldn’t be coming back.

“Retiring and leaving this team is not at all like what happened in Chicago, where a number of players were dissolving and the team knew that they were being broken up, just by virtue of the fact that there was going to be a lockout or whatever was going to happen between that season and ’98 and ’99,” Jackson said. “Of course, as you saw, there were only three or four members of that Bulls team that came back at all. This [Lakers team] is a team that will probably stay intact with most of its players. I’m the one that’s on his way to retirement. So it’s very interesting. It’s something that we have to acknowledge and go through it, but it’s not ‘Win one for the Gipper' or 'Win one for Phil.’

“I’m looking forward to going through this thing, giving every bit of energy I have right to the final part. The days off, I’m not thinking about what it’s going to be next year at this time or anything like that.”

You wonder if, intrinsically, players will feel less obligated to obey a coach they know won’t be around next year. For the Lakers these playoffs will be like the final days of an elementary school year.

Jackson admits, “They’ve treated me like a lame duck … by not letting me control their minds when they’ve gone on some errant journeys out there on the floor and some irrational behavior that I’m not appreciative of.”

Kobe Bryant went off on his own at the end of regulation in the season finale in Sacramento, firing off five missed shots before making the game-tying 3-pointer. Jackson included Bryant among the things that the Lakers will have to “corral” in the playoffs, but acknowledged that, “This is a guy who smells blood in the water and goes for it … that goes with what he’s made up of and the DNA that he has.” He also said that Bryant’s will “is as strong as anybody who’s ever played this game.”

You know full well whom else Jackson has coached. And speaking of Michael Jordan, I was curious as to why Jackson didn’t design the Bulls’ final play of the 1993 NBA Finals for Michael Jordan. Jordan gave up the ball in the backcourt to Scottie Pippen, who passed to Horace Grant, who threw the ball out to John Paxson for the winning 3-pointer. Jackson said the play was based on reading the defense, and he’d like Bryant to apply that thought as well.

So in that regard his final playoff run will be similar to his initial ones in that he’ll need to get his superstar to buy into the team concept. Will Bryant and the rest of the team give Jackson his full attention? Will his mind understandably stray into the unknown of what lies ahead? These aren’t typical questions we have about a Phil Jackson team during the playoffs. Then again, this isn’t the typical Phil Jackson posteason. Even the first press conference felt different.