Phil: ‘I have trouble making commitments.’

Considering how badly his night went, it’s worth remembering why

Phil Jackson woke up to find himself the most sought-after free

agent in the NBA.

One report Tuesday morning quoted two anonymous sources saying

the Chicago Bulls were going through back channels to find out

whether Jackson was interested in leaving Los Angeles and returning

to the town where he won six NBA championships. A second report had

the New Jersey Nets doing the same.

Never mind that the people pushing the latest rumors have been

waiting a week for the Brinks truck dispatched by Cleveland

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to pull up to the curb outside

Jackson’s home.

No matter what you hear, nothing is likely to happen until July

1, at least not officially, because that’s when the NBA’s

free-agent signing period begins. The only way Jackson seriously

considers leaving LA is if LeBron James is already under contract

and waiting at his new destination. And that’s if the 64-year-old

coach with the most championships in league history doesn’t make

good on a vague threat to retire first.

Jackson predictably laughed off the latest rumors during a brief

session with reporters before Game 4 against the Suns in Phoenix.

He said he had “no desire at all” to retrace his footsteps in

Chicago.

And that the extent of his interest in New Jersey was to throw

down a vodka with the Nets’ new billionaire owner, Mikhail

Prokhorov, that rare Russian who claims to never have even tasted

the stuff.

The line that got the best laugh of the night came when Jackson

was pressed to commit to the Lakers or no team next season.

“I have trouble making commitments,” he said, which some in

the room took as a mischievous reference to his long-running

relationship with Lakers executive Jeannie Buss, who also happens

to be owner Jerry Buss’ daughter.

No matter, the repartee wasn’t nearly that funny after the Suns

pulled away for a 115-106 win that evened the series at 2-2. Just

as in Game 3, Phoenix played a 2-3 zone defense that effectively

forced the Lakers to score from the perimeter, something they

rarely do well.

Yet Jackson breezily pointed out that Los Angeles still had the

edge in field goals made and instead put the loss down to the

disparity in free throws – the Suns made 22 of 32; the Lakers 7 of

13 – saying, “They beat us at the foul line both nights, and

that’s the difference in the margin of the game.”

His actions during the game, however, spoke louder than what he

said afterward. Jackson was uncharacteristically agitated for

stretches of the second half, even getting in Andrew Bynum’s face

during a third-quarter timeout on the heels of a poor defensive

sequence.

And Lakers star Kobe Bryant was withering about those same

defensive lapses. The first time he was asked about his teammates’

failure to get him the ball in scoring positions, he cut off the

question.

The next time he was asked a version of the same question, he

glowered.

“That’s not what wins championships. Everybody wants to talk

about the offensive side of the ball. That has nothing to do with

it,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to defend.”

About the only thing Jackson said on the topic was, “I thought

we were standing around watching.”

Based on the admittedly slim evidence available Tuesday night,

you might wonder why the Lakers are paying Jackson $12 million a

year, let alone why suitors are lining up in a handful of other NBA

towns to up the ante if they happen to win the LeBron

sweepstakes.

Here’s why: Bryant, just like Michael Jordan, the other

transcendent star that Jackson coached, long ago bought into the

idea that he wasn’t going to win championships by himself. So much

so that his harping about defensive lapses after the game could

have been written by Jackson himself – except that he seemed much

more upset by the problem than his coach did.

Jackson understands he can’t make Bryant – or Jordan or James –

a better player. No coach is going to do that. But Jackson also

knows the only way to make the players around him better is for

Bryant to be as invested in their progress as he is, especially on

defense.

Most coaches boast they treat every player the same, but Jackson

doesn’t even pretend. Jackson knows a fragile ego when he sees one.

Bynum finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, an improvement

from his two-point, two-rebound effort in Game 3. Like the rest of

the Lakers’ contributions, though, it was not nearly enough to

salvage another brilliant, 38-point, 10-assist effort from

Bryant.

“I was heartened by his play tonight,” Jackson said about

Bynum.

What Jackson really meant is that he expected a lot more from

Bynum, and just about everybody else up and down the roster, when

the series shifts back to Los Angeles. How much he gets could go a

long way in determining whether – let alone where he winds up

watching games from next season.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org