Jackson, Lakers one win from history

Published 10:01 pm Sunday, June 14, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Phil Jackson’s hands are almost full.

If the Los Angeles Lakers can close out the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of the NBA finals on Sunday for their 15th title, Jackson, the meditative Zen Master who retired as a player never imagining he would become pro basketball’s most successful coach, will pass Red Auerbach with 10 championships — a ring for each finger.

Jackson’s ascent into history has the coach who urges his players to live in the moment a tad uneasy.

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“Talking about futuristic things kind of throws me for a loop,” he said Friday. “I do know that it’s a momentous thing.”

Los Angeles moved to brink of its first title since 2002 on Thursday when Derek Fisher, the steady veteran with a final-second flair for drama, made two key 3-pointers in the Lakers’ 98-91 overtime against the running-out-of-time Orlando Magic, who now face a 3-1 mountain.

No team in finals history has ever come back from this far down, and 29 have tried.

On Friday, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy admitted that his team’s fumble of Game 4 with atrocious free-throw shooting, a hideous third quarter and questionable late-game strategy, kept him awake.

It may for many nights ahead.

Maybe years.

With only a few hours to reflect on what went wrong Thursday night in Amway Arena, Van Gundy, who elected not to have his team foul with a three-point lead in the final seconds of regulation, was asked if a night’s rest had brought him any clarity.

“The assumption of a night’s sleep is way off base,” he said.

Leading 87-84 with 11.1 seconds to go, the Magic allowed Fisher, L.A.’s Mr. Big and Bigger Shot, to dribble into the frontcourt and hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left. Fisher, who would stick a fork into the Magic’s hopes — and in all likelihood their season — with another 3-pointer in OT, made his shot over Orlando guard Jameer Nelson, who was slow to react to Fisher’s pull-up.

During a timeout after Magic center Dwight Howard had bricked the two biggest free throws of his young career, Van Gundy had told his team, which went just 22 of 37 from the line, not to foul. Too much time left, Van Gundy thought. And not with Kobe Bryant around.

He didn’t want to risk more missed free throws, giving the Lakers more chances.

Van Gundy is sticking to his (van)guns.

“I’ve rethought it and rethought it and rethought it,” he said as the team’s took a two-day break before Sunday’s Game 5. “It’s easy to say now do I wish we had fouled as opposed to giving that up? Yeah, but I still don’t think at 11 seconds to go in a game that we’re going to foul in that situation. I’ll put it this way: You always have regrets.”

Still, Van Gundy feels his squad, which has twice taken the Lakers to overtime and carried Orlando’s fans on a stomach-churning, turn-twisting journey this season as wild as any ride at Disney World, is capable of an historic comeback.

“It’s not like we’re in a situation where we feel like we can’t play with the Lakers and don’t have a chance to win or anything else,” he said. “Our confidence level will be high. Our guys have demonstrated incredible resiliency all year.”

Los Angeles is bracing for Orlando’s best shot.

This is the moment Bryant, seeking his fourth title, and the Lakers have been building toward. After losing to the Boston Celtics in last year’s finals, their focus has been solely on getting back to the top. Now, they are 48 minutes from redemption and another championship.

The mission is nearly accomplished. Nearly.

“You have to stay focused,” Bryant said after scoring 32 points in Game 4. “You have to hold on to your excitement and just prepare. Prepare, prepare, prepare and go get ready.”

Jackson held a brief meeting with his players on Friday to remind them of the stakes. At it, he sensed emotions were soaring.

“They’re excited about the possibility of winning, and they’re thrilled to have won that game,” he said. “I told them there’s a chance tomorrow’s practice may be the last practice of the season. That’s also something that gets them pretty excited.”

Some of the Lakers have experienced both sides of the Game 5 coin. In the 2000 finals, they held a 3-1 lead over the Indiana Pacers, who then drilled them 120-87 in Game 5. Last year, Los Angeles trailed Boston 3-1 in the finals but salvaged Game 5 at Staples Center before losing Game 6 on the road.

Jackson knows that any team good enough to make it this far is capable of winning three straight games — regardless the odds.

The Magic are still a menace.

“We recognize teams that get to the finals have overcome obstacles in the course of a year,” he said. “They’ve overcome playoff difficulties, they’ve fought for a sense of unity together. It wasn’t so much about the fact that the (2000) team went out and goofed off and messed around and whatnot. But it was the mental attitude that, oh, we’ve-got-them-now type of thing. They don’t want to go back to L.A.

“These guys are going to play their hearts out and they’re going to play really hard, and we have to match that.”

Van Gundy is confident the Magic, who have been down and counted out many times before, will fight to keep their season alive.

“We’re down 3-1,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s anyone who plays, coaches or watches, commentates, writes in this league that doesn’t understand the fine line between winning and losing in this game. I know they’ll bounce back and be ready to go on Sunday. I know our guys think they’re still in the series.”