LOS ANGELES — While the Los Angeles Lakers will begin their postseason at home, their dutiful coach has already strolled into an enemy camp, pitched a tent, started a fire, caused a mess.
While the Lakers will host Oklahoma City, Phil Jackson will begin the playoffs inside Kevin Durant's head.
"Oh, no, here we go again," former Laker Rick Fox said with a laugh.
Oh, yes, here we go again.
Casually, caustically, it happens every spring. For brief moments in each of his 10 playoff runs here, the star whisperer has become a bleacher heckler, lobbing unexpected shots down at unsuspecting opponents, testing their patience, judging their mettle.
He doesn't do it maliciously, but he doesn't do it accidentally. He wants to know who is soft. He wants to know where to punch.
"He wants to know where you're at," Fox said.
Once during a emotional series with the Sacramento Kings, Jackson called the city of Sacramento a "cowtown." The fans lost their cool. The Kings lost their focus.
Last year, in the middle of a tied conference championship series with the Denver Nuggets, Jackson essentially called Dahntay Jones a dirty player. Jones was indignant. His teammates were distracted. The Nuggets were cooked.
This year it's Kevin Durant's turn, the barely adolescent Thunder star accused by Jackson of being pampered by officials, Durant reacting in the sort of anger and hurt that could lead him to play outside himself come Sunday's opener.
In other words, Durant reacted perfectly, the league's leading scorer brilliantly playing the part of Jackson's mark.
"That is Phil's method. He made those comments to see what's going on inside the kid's head," said Fox, who won three consecutive titles here with Jackson. "Skill-wise, the kid is there. But maturity-wise, in dealing with a playoff atmosphere, he still has a long way to go."
Earlier this week, here's what Jackson said about Durant, who led the league in free throws: "I think a lot of the referees are treating him like a superstar. He gets to the line easily and often. Yeah, by the calls he gets, he really gets to the line a lot, I'll tell ya. There's a couple of plays in the last game where I was pretty curious how he got there."
The line about the referees earned Jackson a $35,000 fine from NBA on Thursday, a relatively small rental fee for the right to occupy the mind of a guy who, when unburdened, has the size and quickness to dominate the Lakers' defense.
Here's what Durant told The Oklahoman in response to Jackson's charges: "I work so hard, and obviously since he's not around he doesn't see how hard I work and how much I've gotten better through the season. It's kind of unfortunate for him to say that about me."
When asked if these comments would fire him up, Durant said, "Yeah, it doesï¿½Because it's taking away from what I do. That's a part of my game, getting to the free throw line and being aggressive. If you say that I get superstar calls or I get babied by the refs, that's just taking away from how I play. That's disrespectful to me."
When reading Durant's comments, the first thought is, doesn't anybody with the league's youngest team know anything about history? The moment Jackson opened his mouth, somebody on the Thunder staff should have grabbed the kid and let him in on the con.
He's only going after you because he respects you. You shouldn't be mad, you should be honored. And you should keep your mouth shut.
The second thought is, hmm, for such a great shooter, this kid is awfully defensive. Despite being a national star, could he still be feeling he doesn't get enough respect? Does he feel like he has to be Michael Jordan to get the love of Michael Jordan's old coach? And if so, won't he suffer from trying to be too much?
Jackson wasn't the first one to question Durant's ability to get calls — Boston's Kevin Garnett has done the same thing, and was also fined for it. Referees being human beings and Durant being the league's darling, maybe some of the accusations are true. But he's also so long and agile and quick, he's nearly impossible to guard fairly, and surely many of those free throws are also deserved.
Foul or fair, we now know that Sunday at Staples Center, Durant will take the floor thinking about it, and Lakers fans will be waiting to boo about it, and Jackson will be thrilled with all of it.
"This is where Phil Jackson earns his money," Fox said.
Every Zen cent.
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