Lakers' Jackson Starts Playoff Posturing Early; NBA to Discuss James' Absences
That wasn't the case Tuesday. In the morning at Staples Center, Lakers coach Phil Jackson did his best to ensure that rising star Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City is granted no special treatment by officials in his team's first-round series against the Lakers. In the afternoon in New York, the NBA revealed to Fanhouse that it has its eye on an even bigger star.
Should LeBron James sit out against Atlanta Wednesday as expected, he will have missed the final four games of the regular season despite being healthy. But according to league spokesman Tim Frank, James' absences have prompted a discussion at the highest levels.
"This is a subject we are monitoring, and we plan to discuss the subject at this week's board of governor's meeting (in New York)," Frank said to FanHouse.
The discussions will certainly cover both sides of the matter, as James' tactic serves as one extreme and the plight of fallen Portland guard Brandon Roy the other. The Blazers' star suffered a partially torn meniscus against the Lakers Sunday and would likely miss the playoffs if he opts to have surgery. There is no timetable for his recovery if he does not. The most obvious difference, of course, is that Roy's Blazers had a chance to move up in the standings at the time he was playing while the Cavaliers had locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Lakers have two regular season games left on the schedule, but even their coach on Tuesday said those are virtually meaningless affairs. Kobe Bryant won't play Tuesday against the Kings or Wednesday against the Clippers, as he is resting the right index finger that has an avulsion fracture and the legs that will be needed until June once again if another championship is in store.
The first test will pit the league's longest-reigning megastar in Bryant against its youngest in Durant. With that in mind, Jackson wasted no time laying the psychological groundwork for which he has long been known. Asked whether Durant is atop the league's list of torch bearing talents, Jackson said the league's officials have played a part in the 21-year-old's rise. Let the gamesmanship begin.
"Yeah, by the calls he gets I kind of think that they uh ... he really gets to the line a lot, I tell ya," Jackson said of the third-year player who leads the league in free throw attempts (10.3 per game) and will finish the regular season as the youngest ever to win a scoring title (currently 30.1 points per game). "There (were) a couple plays the last game where I was curious as to how he got (to the line), but he really has a reputation now as one of the hot points in our league. (You) go there, create contact, and hope you get to the line."
While it was unclear whether Jackson was referring to the last Lakers-Thunder matchup (a 91-75 Thunder win on March 26 in which Durant shot seven free throws) or Oklahoma City's last game of any kind (Monday night's 103-95 loss to Portland in which Durant had 10 free throws), the point was certainly clear. If not original.
After Durant made all 15 of his free throws in a win over Boston on March 31, the Celtics' Kevin Garnett said in frustration (video), "I thought we were playing Michael (expletive) Jordan tonight the way he was getting the whistle ... Durant damn near shot more free throws than our whole team."
He was later fined $25,000 by the league for his comments.
Of course Jackson will be the perfect judge of Garnett's theory, having benefited from the Jordan rules while winning six of his all-time high 10 titles during his Bulls tenure (1989 to 1998). He's the ultimate source on another hot topic as well, that of Cleveland's LeBron James and his decision to rest the final four games that caused some controversy in the media.
There is certainly precedent in this realm.
As Jackson pointed out, an incident at the end of the 1989-90 season made it harder in that era for teams to rest players leading into the playoffs. Then-Lakers coach Pat Riley was fined $25,000 on April 25, 1990 for not playing Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the final regular season game. The Lakers were preparing for their first-round series against Houston, and they fell to the Blazers 130-88 in a finale that was the most one-sided Lakers loss in franchise history.
"(There) was a decrease in minutes (for Jordan and other stars late in the season back then)," Jackson said. "But unless (the reason for the player sitting) was something significant, people were asked (by the league) not to sit people out. I think there's a point (there), and a real emphasis that players get around the league so fans have a chance to see them."
FanHouse's Tim Povtak drew a comparison between James' willingness to sit and Michael Jordan's refusal to do so even when his teams were in a similar spot. But Jackson opted only to compliment his former player while also seeing the logic in James' move.
"Michael was always a person who (thought) people paid a high ticket price to watch me play and I want to perform," Jackson said. "He was great about that. I think that's one of the things that has been great about our stars is that they come out and play.
"There's a fan following. They're watching every game. (There were) a couple times in Michael's career where he was tossed from a ballgame and suspended for the next one, (and) it was a town we only went to one time (during the season). People travel from hundreds of miles to get to this game, and there was quite an (out)cry from the fan core about how the league designates how they do this."
With James, he said, there is a strategic advantage behind the reigning MVP's absences.
"I kind of thought that it played kind out into Cleveland's favor to not showcase everything they have against Orlando (in a loss on Sunday), especially when they know that's their threat (in the Eastern Conference) coming down the stretch," he said. "(You) give him a little bit of rest, and let the team work it out without him ... I think it kind of gives your bench a lot of confidence. You see that (Mo) Williams can play without James on the floor. (He can) kind of carry the ball a little bit and do the things that have to be done for his team."
Jackson has plenty of his own players to be concerned about, as center Andrew Bynum has missed 11 games since his March 19 left Achilles tendon injury. While the Lakers won't practice Thursday, Jackson said Bynum is expected to do individual work before joining the team for practice Friday and Saturday in anticipation of playing in Game 1 against the Thunder.
"It's nice to be able to plan a couple days (for the Thunder)," Jackson said. "We had someone at the game last night watching (Oklahoma City play Portland). They're a very young, athletic team. Speed-wise, they're quick. That's going to be a challenge for us to stay with them. They convert turnovers, get their hands on balls and run out very well in transition. They are a pretty good open floor team. Defensively, I think they've come a long way this year and that has made them get up here in the playoffs."
The question, of course, is whether coach Scott Brooks and his young Thunder can remain composed against the veteran-laden Lakers.
"It all comes down to how much pressure are you able to exert on yourself or deal with the pressure of the playoffs, in need situations," Jackson said. "The game changes."
And the game within the game too.
To follow Sam on Twitter, go to @sam_amick.