Saturday, March 27, 2010 Updated: March 28, 9:40 PM ET
Despite victory, Jackson not pleased
By Arash Markazi ESPNLosAngeles.com
HOUSTON -- Phil Jackson was in a philosophical mood before the Lakers prepared to play the Houston Rockets on Saturday night. Coming off a humbling 91-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder the night before, Jackson ran his team through a tough practice in the morning.
The way Jackson saw it, the Lakers were like a poor horse that needed to be whipped into shape.
"The Buddha has a story about the four horses -- the excellent horse, the good horse, the regular horse and the poor horse," Jackson said. "Obviously the excellent horse knows how to run before the whip is even lifted, but the poor horse has to feel it in the marrow of his bones before he runs. That's kind of what we have. The poor horse is actually the one that gains the most from practice because they have to feel it all the way through their being. So maybe they'll learn something from this."
It didn't look as if the Lakers learned or felt anything early in their 109-101 win over the Rockets. After turning the ball over 18 times against the Thunder, the Lakers proceeded to turn it over five times in the first quarter and fell behind 34-27, trailing by as many as nine to a team playing without Shane Battier and Kevin Martin. The Lakers, who have a way of making Rockets role players look like burgeoning All-Stars, allowed former D-Leaguer Jermaine Taylor to score a career-high 15 points in his first NBA start and were once again helpless as Aaron Brooks cut and sliced his way to 12 first-quarter points.
Ron Artest appeared to hurt his ankle against Houston, but afterward he said he was fine.
The Lakers then got an unexpected kick start from their oldest and most maligned horse, Derek Fisher, and finally awoke from whatever daze they've been in since leaving San Antonio.
With 7:50 to go in the second quarter, Fisher came in for Jordan Farmar, who was equally helpless keeping up with Brooks, and quickly hit a 10-foot running bank shot to help spark a 20-0 run to give the Lakers a 62-43 lead. Fisher tied his season-high with 15 points and hit all three of his 3-point attempts.
"Derek had his moments in the playoffs and I know he wanted to come out here and play well tonight," Jackson said. "He has great character and last night he didn't like the way it ended and didn't like the way it started."
Jackson was particularly critical of Pau Gasol after his performance against the Thunder. Jackson called Gasol "soft" and complained he settled for bad shots during a 3-for-10 shooting night instead of asserting himself. Against the Rockets, Gasol responded by posting a season-high 30 points, hitting 11 of 17 shots, and grabbing eight rebounds. The improved effort was only good enough to move the needle on Jackson's scale from "soft" to "nifty."
"I thought he was nifty," Jackson said. "I thought he had a good block on [Luis] Scola, but I thought he was trying to back in Chuck Hayes, which is not really the way to play him. He did all right."
The key for the Lakers' turnaround, as it was in their comeback win against the Spurs, was the defensive effort. The Lakers held the Rockets to 11 points in the second quarter, their lowest of the season, as Houston made only 4 of 23 shots. Ron Artest once again led the charge on the defensive end as he stole the ball from a driving Brooks and pumped his fists after blocking a Taylor putback.
"We finally got a feel for what they were doing and settled in," said Kobe Bryant, who scored 17 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out nine assists. "Last night the game got away from us in the process of trying to do that and they broke it open, but tonight we did a much better job of staying in the game while feeling them out."
Whether they like it or not -- and they don't -- Artest and Trevor Ariza will always be linked as long as they play for the Lakers and Rockets. Artest is the only new player on a Lakers team that chose to sign him away from the Rockets in the offseason, a move that opened the door for Ariza to move to Houston. Not only are their careers intertwined, but so were their feet in the third quarter as Ariza and Artest went to the floor after a loose ball and Artest came up holding his left ankle as if he had twisted it. Despite going to the locker room and coming back onto the court, Artest, who finished the game with a noticeable limp, said he wasn't injured.
"I'm fine," he said when asked about going into the locker room. "I just had to use the bathroom."
Such a response might elicit a double take, but it made perfect sense coming from Artest, who also mentioned he was working on a new song he would debut on Twitter at the end of the season.
Despite the win, the way the Lakers finished the game didn't change Jackson's opinion of them. They are still poor horses in his eyes, a team unable to play a complete game from start to finish.
"I'm not happy with the win, but we won the game," he said. "We got outscored 32-20 in the fourth quarter. You don't want to finish a game like that."
So the question for Jackson, who claims to rarely get angry -- "A rebuke is about as difficult as I get," he said -- is can a poor horse ever become an excellent horse?
"I don't know about that one," he said. "I looked at that fourth quarter and guys weren't getting back and the same things were happening again so we'll have a little talk tomorrow and we'll discuss how to get it done."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.