LOS ANGELES // The number cannot be ignored. Not by those unfortunate enough to meet a Phil Jackson team in the postseason. Certainly not by the Boston Celtics, who are likely to be reminded of it every time someone puts a microphone in their face over the next few days. The number is 47.
As in, 47-0 - the record of Jackson-coached teams when they win the first game of a play-off series. It has grown over 19 years into one of the most remarkable, if almost unnoticed, streaks in sport. The way Jackson's Los Angeles Lakers manhandled the Celtics in their 102-89 opening victory in the NBA finals, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would suggest the streak might end now. One game in, and the number says it is all over. Teams coached by Jackson just do not lose when they win the first game of a play-off series. "It's nice to know that's on our side," Jackson said.
There is a reason the Lakers pay Jackson many more millions than any other NBA coach. They lured him to LA to win play-off games and championships, and there is not a coach in NBA history who has done it better. And there may never be any coach better at getting his team ready to play from the opening tip of the first game of a play-off series. "This first game kind of sets the table, and that's important," he said.
The Lakers not only set the table on Thursday night, but feasted at it. Up against a team that made their play-off run at the end of sharp elbows, they used Ron Artest to make a statement just seconds into the game and were the more physical team the rest of the night. Chalk that up to Kobe Bryant's seemingly insatiable desire to win another ring, and to Pau Gasol's determination to set matters straight. But it was Jackson who put the plan in place to outsmart a coach who won accolades by getting his team into the final. "I thought they were terrific today. I thought they were by far the more physical team," Doc Rivers said.
The hungriest, too, and that may be Jackson's best work of these play-offs. The Lakers fought for every contested ball, outscored the Celtics 16-0 on second-chance points, and earned every cheer from a crowd that believes it is their right to win the NBA title every year. Bryant was the leader, of course, playing as if chasing his first title instead of his fifth. But his supporting cast helped expose this Boston team for what they perhaps really are - a group of overachievers who may not have enough left to pull off another upset in these play-offs. The most fire the Celtics showed all night came in the locker room afterwards, where the nature of the loss stung more than the loss itself.
"It wasn't a typical loss locker room," Paul Pierce said. "There was some angry people in there and it showed. The guys in there got pride and don't want to lose the way we did. We're down 20 and they beat us to the hustle plays. That don't sit well with me at all." Pierce and his teammates were at a loss to explain how they could have come out flat when it mattered so much, short of having signed some secret non-aggression pact with the Lakers. They didn't seem to have a clue.
"It's hard to say," Kendrick Perkins, the centre, said. "I mean, their intensity wasn't missing. They had the same lay-off as us. I just think they wanted it more and they came out and showed it." Unfortunately for the Celtics, they picked the wrong time to have a bad game. Losing Game 1 on the road usually isn't a death sentence, but losing to a Jackson team in Game 1 on the road may as well be. His amazing streak began on April 27, 1990 when the Bulls beat Milwaukee at home in a series they went on to win 3-1. Since then his teams have won the first game of a play-off and gone on to win the series 46 more times.
The Celtics claim not to notice, and get annoyed when they're asked about it."Those type of historical numbers don't stick out to this team," Tony Allen said. "We definitely don't think about that." That may be true up to now. With Game 2 being played tomorrow, though, that could change. * AP