Tonight presents the Lakers a shot at punching their ticket to a third consecutive NBA Finals. Winning on the road is never an easy proposition, much less during the playoffs in a close-out scenario. Thankfully for Lakers fans, the purple and gold are rolling when it comes to this particular hurdle. Their last four series (Nuggets and Magic in '09, Thunder and Jazz in '10) have wrapped up outside the confines of Staples Center, a degree of success far too pronounced to write off as a coincidence.
There's an art to taking care of business in a hostile environment, and it starts with the desire to succeed under the most challenging circumstances. It's one thing to be unafraid of the moment. It's another to actually desire being thrust into the moment.
Phil Jackson was asked during Friday's practice about the Lakers' success closing on the road, and how much he relishes the opportunity to end a foe's season in their house. His response was nothing if not fiery:
"We don't plan on going to Phoenix and losing three times on their home court. We're not making this trip over there just to fill a date. We're going over there to win a game. We're highly motivated for this game, but we understand that if it has to go seven, we're damn well ready to come back home and defend our home court again. This is a series that has taken a lot of different faces to it in the course of these five games and we don't expect Game 6 to be any different."
Hearing Phil's words, I was reminded of something I already knew but often goes lost in the shuffle of a laid-back persona. The man is competitive as hell.
Yes, he's into meditation. Yes, he'll use incense, sage and the like to create good juju. Yes, he preaches staying in the moment, a mantra helping one avoid emotional highs and lows. Yes, he'll often sit in silent tranquility as his team gets in trouble, famously opting to let guys "figure it out for themselves" in favor of a timeout. Yes, there's a decided "What me worry?" air to Jackson in situations ranging from losses to his contract status to life in general. He often appears confidently indifferent to the results, like a guy who's experienced far too much success to truly crave more. If further glory comes, great. But if not, he'll be just fine one way or the other.
But don't let the smooth taste fool you. Underneath that calm demeanor is one freakishly competitive dude, a guy who absolutely can't stand to lose. This is a side of Phil often overlooked as people buy too heavily into the "Zen Master" persona. He may not be one for sideline histrionics, profanity-laced tirades against his players (publicly, at least) or general
Did hearing Phil's comments make me confident victory is iced? Not by a long shot. The Suns are a scrappy bunch and play very well at home. It's not hard to believe they've got another win left in them before finally exiting, as I ultimately think will be their fate, whether tonight or Monday. But judging by Phil's grittiness and yesterday's focused attitude in El Segundo, I'm very confident the Lakers will play like a team well-prepared for the challenge, win or lose.
One final thought: As Phil mentioned, this series has been all over the map. We've seen the Lakers look unbeatable. We've seen them visibly frustrated against a zone defense. We've seen Amare Stoudemire criticized to the high heavens for listless performances. We've seen STAT tie a career playoff-high of 42 points. We've seen Phoenix's bench live up to their "X-Factor" billing on the road and barely register a pulse at home. We've seen Ron Artest make the worst decisions imaginable and become a Laker playoff icon in the span of just 56 seconds.
In a nutshell, wacky goings on.
There has, however, been one constant.
In all five games, the winner of the offensive rebounding battle won the game itself. The trend also makes perfect sense. If the Lakers control the offensive glass, it represents a utilization of the size advantage at their disposal. In the meantime, giving a high octane team like the Suns extra chances at the basket is just asking for trouble. Artest and Pau Gasol (against OKC) have already proven how offensive rebounding can be the last second difference between a win and loss. But the offensive glass cleaned during the other 47 minutes, 59 seconds can also swing a game's fate.
Something to think about before the opening tip.