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Who's showing up tonight for the NBA finals, Fartman or Superman?

News - Sports Articles

ORLANDO -- At first glance it seems that Stan Van Gundy is doing all of the coaching in this series, while Phil Jackson is doing all of the winning.

Van Gundy is taking the risks, making the bold moves, whether it's bringing Jameer Nelson back from a shoulder injury into major minutes, or trying every lineup combination from two big men to no point guard.

Jackson just seems to be sitting back, unimpressed and unmoved. The most he can be troubled to do is offer a slight smirk.

The reason he so seldom panics, the method behind the apparent madness that allows him to sit back without calling timeout while his team flails on the court, is that he trusts his players will learn on their own from their mistakes.

He has plenty of evidence that his way works. One reminder is the 2002 championship ring he has worn on his right hand for the past two months. And if that isn't enough he has eight more of similar size and carat weight.

His past allows him to work in the present. It tempers the roaring flames that can roast coaches during the playoffs, although in today's blog-and-comments-page world there has been more criticism of Jackson than ever. He stayed with his plan and believed in his guys even while Lakers fans were ready to send Derek Fisher to the convalescent home or take Lamar Odom's candy away from him. And in two of the turning-point games of these playoffs, there was Fisher, hitting shots in Game 7 of the Houston series and coming up with a huge steal in overtime of Game 2 of the Finals. Odom has come back from a disappointing, injury-plagued couple of weeks to average 17 points and 11 rebounds in the Lakers' past four games.

Jackson isn't barking out course corrections every two seconds or furiously spinning the wheel, but the Lakers are sailing in the right direction. The Lakers arrive in Orlando with a 2-0 lead, confident in who they are and what they're doing. While Van Gundy is experimenting, Jackson is verifying. The Magic are shrouded in doubt. Nelson and Rafer Alston have to be wondering how they'll be used or even if they'll be used in crunch time after Van Gundy kept them both on the bench down the stretch in Game 2.

And yet Van Gundy is going out of his way to say nice things about all of his guys. It's not his style to publicly trash players. Even when the Magic played the right odds in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics, double-teaming Paul Pierce to force Big Baby Davis to make the winning shot, Van Gundy did everything but hold himself accountable for not protecting the little kid Davis bumped on the sideline after making the jumper.

After Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when the Lakers made it clear they would do everything short of sending out a rack of basketballs and a couple of ball boys to rebound if it would keep Alston shooting -- and he proved them right by missing seven of eight shots -- Van Gundy actually said the words: "I thought Rafer was playing well" before explaining why he had to take Alston out. There was nothing "well" about Alston's game, yet Van Gundy didn't want to be seen as picking on his starting point guard.

Jackson, meanwhile, had no problems calling out the main man on his team after Game 2, saying, "I didn't think Kobe had a good game at all as far as his standards go." And rather than causing an uproar, Jackson got confirmation from Bryant after the words were relayed to him. When asked whether he thought he played well, Bryant said, "Absolutely not."

You'll never hear Jackson blaming himself. On the flip side, he doesn't often take credit, either. For all of his arrogance, he doesn't like to do things just for the sake of making it look as if he's the one in control. He doesn't stomp along the sidelines orchestrating every trip his team makes down the floor. He tends to explain his decisions and substitutions when asked, not on his own. And he's never claimed or attempted to be a great motivator. Even with the increased access of cameras and microphones there aren't any clips of Jackson giving a fiery, rah-rah speech.

He doesn't even bother with the details. While bracing for the pent-up fan energy that awaited the Lakers once they hit the road, he said, "Orlando hasn't had a Finals in, what, 18 years, 16 years?" apparently not concerned enough to have looked up the fact that Orlando's only previous NBA Finals appearance was, in fact, 14 years ago.

Van Gundy has done his research. After the Magic lost Game 1 by 25 points he brought up the time the Lakers were victimized by the Boston Celtics in the "Memorial Day Massacre" in the first game of the 1985 Finals, only to come back and win the series.

For Van Gundy and the Magic, it only demonstrated their disadvantage. Van Gundy has studied Finals history. Jackson has lived it.

J.A. Adande is an senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.

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