Friday's contest against the New Jersey Nets features the return of two former Lakers, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic, a wrinkle that could add some emotion to an otherwise (theoretically) lopsided contest. Farmar already competed against the Lakers in Newark, but this will be his first time doing battle in Staples Center, and he'll receive a ring to boot. (Another pregame presentation, like when D.J. Mbenga got his ring before the game against the Hornets.) Throw in Farmar's "hometown" factor and the atmosphere could be pretty charged for the point guard.
If Jordan's emotions are at a "nine" on a scale of 1-10, Sasha could very well clock in around "274." This will be his first time playing against the only other team's he's known since entering the league in 2004. Sasha truly loved being a Laker and even though his dwindling PT made his trade to Jersey a welcome event, that doesn't change the feelings he'll likely always have towards this franchise. Plus, as I always note, players often want to blow up their old squads. And at the risk of stating the absurdly obvious, Sasha has a tendency to be tightly wound.
I asked Phil Jackson if he had any idea expectations for Sasha's mood on Friday. With his voice slightly emotional, he acknowledged the human element, noting how Jordan and "Aleksander" will obviously want to play well against the Lakers.
For those who aren't aware, "Sasha" is actually Aleksander Vujacic's nickname, and I found it touching Jackson was compelled to use his former player's given name, which I've never heard him do. Even more than the memories kindly shared about Vujacic's time in L.A., praise for Sasha's work ethic and hope for future success, "Aleksander" caught my ear because it felt like a sign of respect and affection.
I was reminded of a great exchange on "MASH," when Radar O'Reilly (a youngster never referred to any way other than "Radar") says his goodbyes to the other characters before going home. He eventually bids farewell to Major Winchester, a snobby blue blood who has mocked the corporal's small town roots on several occasions. Radar wishes Winchester the best of luck, and Winchester replies, "Thank you, Walter."
The moment wasn't lost on Radar as Winchester walks away, and it didn't feel any less symbolic from Sasha's former coach.
Like Winchester, Phil Jackson has a big ego and a penchant for tweaking those around him. But for all the times PJ has used the media to zing his players, sometimes mercilessly, there's a reason players generally enjoy time under him: He bothers trying to understand them. Sasha's high strung, follicle-obsessed nature made him an exceptionally easy target for teasing by teammates, fans and the Kamenetzky brothers (who practically owe the guy a royalty check). But generally speaking, Vujacic escaped Phil's tongue, which I always took as recognition of the danger in pressing a sensitive kid's buttons too often, particularly after he fell out of the rotation. And at the end of the day, the shooter's dedication to basketball earned his respect, if not his continued trust on the floor.
In recounting his conversation with Sasha about being traded, Jackson said he told Sasha he'd "always going to be family" to him. Hearing him refer to the player as "Aleksander" feels like an extension of that sentiment.
Less sentimental, however, was Jackson's grading of his team at the near-halfway point. The Zen Master didn't flunk the two-time defending champs, but hardly moved them to the Dean's list. The team earned a "B," with room allotted (or acknowledged, depending on how you look at it) for improvement.
"We're definitely a B-team right now," assessed PJ. "We have room for improvement. What I like about it is we've got their attention and they're starting to be attentive on defense and know that they've got an opportunity to be a really good team.
"The halfway point obviously says something about a team. We're not displeased with where we're at; we're unhappy we had some consecutive losses. We want to try to eliminate that over the course of the season. You'll have a bad game, maybe you might have another one, but you want to eliminate multiple losses in the season and we fell into that a couple times during the early part of this year."
As far as Shannon Brown's concerned, his coach has done gone soft. The high fly act offered a sideways smirk, then a "C or C+." Asked what it would take to earn an "A," Brown was pretty straightforward and to the point: "A championship."
Also, Shannon's reaction when it's noted how "feisty" Sasha will be as an opponent is pretty funny.
And finally, the afternoon offered a pair of injury updates. First, Matt Barnes talked about Tuesday's successful knee surgery and the road to recovery. This trip under the knife was the first in Barnes' entire career, and he expressed frustration at the timing coinciding with what he deemed "the most important season of my career." Still, "it is what it is," he told us, and Barnes is determined to get back on the court ASAP.
Beyond dutiful rehab sessions, Barnes will make his absence as constructive as possible. Couch time will be spent watching Chicago Bulls game film to familiarize himself with guard responsibilities in the triangle. Hopefully, he'll emerge a healthy and better rounded wing player in (fingers crossed) eight weeks. Until then, excuse his slow movement, even if his twin toddlers won't.
"They get mad," laughed Barnes about playing with the kids. "One of them threw the ball at me yesterday because I couldn't play defense on them."
Still, the Barnes children may demand their father be a two-way force, but they aren't made of stone:
"Every time they see my band aids, they want to kiss my ow-ees, so that was cute."
(Also, be aware of a loud buzzer coming at the 2:40 mark of the video. As you'll see, Barnes was quite startled.)
As for Theo Ratliff, a return date is inching closer. According to a team rep, the plan is take part in a full practice on January 23 or 24, then potential activation for the game against Utah on the 25th. (From there, Derrick Caracter would probably get reassigned to the D-League, but definitely not before Ratliff is ready.) The 16-year veteran is no stranger to injuries, but told me familiarity doesn't make time in a suit any easier. The itch for game action is so strong, even the most tedious drills are happily endured if it means he's one step closer to a return.
For example, the reserves spent the end of practice engaged in what would be best-described as souped up running. At times, relay races around the three-point arc. Other times, a shuttle run of sorts along the sidelines and baselines. But an unusual presentation can't make a boatload of running any more enjoyable, and I kept picturing Ratliff and Joe Smith as Murtaugh in "Lethal Weapon." ("I'm too old for this ____!")
Well, not the man we call "Minerals." He'll gladly lug a 37-year old body up and down the court in exchange for clearance.
Ratliff also shared his admiration for the way Jackson "manipulates" situations to get a player's attention. The word often carries a negative tone, but Ratliff was in fact praising PJ's desire for players to think:
"A lot of people don't think there's a lot of thinking involved in basketball. He definitely puts your mind to the test... When we were going through the (bad) stretch. When the Lakers lose three or four games by 20 points to inferior teams, so to speak. How he handled that whole process and kind of got guys back on track. Even the tidbit going at Kobe (Bryant). There's just certain things that he does. Going at Pau (Gasol). Going at everybody... He does a great job at having that mind game, so to speak."
Have you ever had a coach who operated like that, I asked?
"Not in the sense of how he does it, so calmly," smiled Ratliff.