Phil Jackson has collected nine championships and won at a higher percentage than any other NBA coach, using his mastery of motivation, Zen philosophy and mediation.
Though Flip Saunders has the league’s second-longest tenure, he remains very much in Jackson’s tall shadow – a far less accomplished, far less mysterious contemporary who just ended a record streak of seven straight first-round playoff losses.
But they share these roots: long, thankless days in the Continental Basketball Association that helped shape them into coaches who have guided their teams to this year’s Western Conference finals.
“Their styles are totally different, but they are two of by far the best coaches in the league,” said Mark Madsen, in his first season playing for Saunders and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Before that, Madsen spent three years under Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I can remember at least four or five times when he’d come into the locker room during the playoffs with a burning incense of some sort,” he said. “I guess he was trying to smoke out different parts of the room. That’s not Flip’s style.”
Jackson and Saunders, however, each have learned to draw on their backgrounds to deal with current challenges. In the CBA in the ‘80s, their rosters were frequently picked through by NBA clubs and turnover was frequent.
After All-Star point guard Sam Cassell limped off with a bad back just 43 seconds into Sunday’s Game 2, Saunders barely made a whimper.
“You learn to adapt,” he said. “You learn pretty early that no matter what you have, you can’t worry about it because you really have no control over it.”
The first thing any CBA alum always mentions when asked about the minor league is its spartan lifestyle.
“The room service wasn’t half as good,” Jackson said.
But there’s a future value in having to be a coach, a scout, a contract negotiator and perhaps a friend all at the same time. The myriad responsibilities, and the accompanying headaches, can only pay off now.
“We had to deal with the whole scope,” said Jackson, who coached the Albany Patroons from 1982-87 before joining the Chicago Bulls as an assistant. “We appreciated the opportunity to coach, but the biggest value was it gives you an opportunity to run the whole thing, the whole show.”
The motor-mouthed Cassell came to Minnesota last summer with a reputation for ball-hogging and bad practice habits. Saunders, though, has worked quite well with him – a symbiosis that both coach and player seem to have contributed to equally. Cassell, not coincidentally, had a career season at age 34.
“He’s done a wonderful job,” Cassell said. “I couldn’t ask for a better coach at this stage of my career. He understands what I bring to the team.”
This is also, clearly, the most talented team Saunders has had. With leaders like Cassell, Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell, he’s done less policing in the locker room and solicited more suggestions from players.
“He loves input,” Cassell said. “He said one day that he can call a play, but if we want something else, we’ve got to go with what we want to run. Because we’ve got to run it. That’s why a lot of coaches aren’t successful.”
Saunders, who spent seven seasons as a CBA head coach with three different teams, has been with Garnett since the beginning.
“It’s been rocky at times, but we’ve hung in there,” Garnett said. “The thing about Flip is if you give your all to him, he’ll give his all to you.”
Devean George, Jackson’s first draft pick with the Lakers, has moved from raw forward out of tiny Augsburg College to starter for title-contending team. George credits the focus on fundamentals by Jackson and his staff.
Of course, most coaches don’t buy books for their players and recite Buddhist and Native American teachings.
“He’s very, very unpredictable,” George said. “You never know what to expect from him. One thing can go one way one day. The next day, it’s something totally different.”
“You’ve got to know who you work with,” Madsen said. “They both build really strong relationships.”
Let’s get physical
Though he’s a bit more choosy these days, Karl Malone never backs down from a confrontation. The NBA’s highest-scoring power forward ever is too close to his first championship to get sidetracked by a little rough stuff.
So if the Minnesota Timberwolves intend to stick with their abrasive style of play in the Western Conference finals, Malone won’t hesitate to run over another backup point guard.
“We can play that kind of game,” Malone said Sunday after Minnesota’s 89-71 victory that evened the series 1-1. “We have to match their intensity, and that’s something I can do better than I did. I’ll bring a different (game) to the rest of the series.”
The teams combined for seven technical fouls in the final 8 1/2 minutes, and Malone was ejected for a flagrant foul when he ran over Darrick Martin as the guard attempted to set a midcourt pick.
Malone was fined $7,500 by the NBA on Monday.
Though both teams shrugged off the confrontations, expect more of the same in Game 3 tonight at Staples Center.
“I think it’s only the beginning,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. “When you play a team two times in three days, you start to not like each other.”
Sam Cassell returned to the court for practice Monday, and the Timberwolves’ point guard said again he doesn’t plan to let his bad back keep him out of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
“I felt a little better,” Cassell said Monday as he left Target Center before the Wolves left for California.
“I’m still not where I want to be at,” he said. “It’s tough, man. I just want to have a little confidence in my body.”
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