Phil Jackson’s message to the Lakers was simple yet declarative, eye-opening in the weight of only one sentence.
“I told them if you can’t meet this challenge, why go to the Finals?” he said Wednesday.
The Lakers were back at their training facility in El Segundo, gladly soaking up familiar surroundings after losing twice in Phoenix to deadlock the Western Conference finals at two games each.
There was talk of playing better defense, continuing to break Phoenix’s 2-3 zone defense and rebounding with more aplomb a day after the small-ball Suns bludgeoned the Lakers on the boards, 51-36.
Jackson also said it was time to go deeper into the Lakers’ bench, perhaps using more of Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic, who have logged a combined six minutes in the series.
“There are guys that can help us,” Jackson said.
But Jackson’s metaphysical words carried the day, as they often do, leading up to Game 5 in the best-of-seven series Thursday at Staples Center.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that we love this,” he said, pushing back the walls that have again crowded around a veteran team trying to repeat as NBA kings.
“This is what champions are made of. We had this situation in Oklahoma, we had it with Denver last year in the [West] finals. This is what it should be if you have the best teams in the West going up against each other. It should come down to a challenge like this.”
History shows that the Lakers did well in Game 5 last month against Oklahoma City (a 111-87 domination) and last season against Denver (a 103-94 victory), not to mention Game 5s in general, winning their last eight under Jackson, including the one that made them champions last June in Orlando.
There were no signs of distress after their practice Wednesday, though Kobe Bryant went back to being brief in his answers, an easily predictable demeanor given the Suns’ ascent in the last two games.
He was clipped when asked what happened to the height advantage that propelled the Lakers to double-digit victories in Games 1 and 2.
“It’s still there,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep them off the free-throw line.”
Oh, yeah, that. Was the Suns’ 74-33 advantage in free-throw attempts the last two games a product of Phoenix being more aggressive or the Lakers being that much more passive?
“Um, yes,” Bryant said.
Any reasons beyond that?
“No,” he said.
Bryant was adamant in the immediate aftermath of Game 4 that the Lakers needed to play better defense, a mind-set that led to a lot of nodding and agreeing Wednesday among players and coaches.
Jackson didn’t like that the Lakers yielded a 41-point second quarter and a 30-point fourth quarter, the latter forcing him to use the word “untenable” while noting the game was tied early in the quarter but slipped away.
Some of the Lakers went back to their experience against the Thunder, whose younger, more athletic legs blistered them in Game 4 but didn’t lead to any more victories after that.
“It’s the same,” Pau Gasol said. “It’s a Game 5. The series is tied. It’s a must-win for us. The sense of urgency is total at this point.