I’m not sure when it happened last season, but Lakers coach Phil Jackson described Sasha Vujacic in a way that none of us who cover the team have forgotten. Jackson dubbed Vujacic an “11 o’clock shooter” as opposed to a “7:30 shooter.” Translation: Vujacic was great at practice but disappeared in games.
When he was reminded of those words after Sunday’s game, Jackson couldn’t help but snicker about a “6:30 game.” It was an early start Sunday, but Vujacic finally was a big-game shooter for the Lakers, hitting 6 of 7 shots, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 28.5 seconds left, and scoring a career-high 16 points.
“Sasha’s starting to settle in,” Jackson said. “I think he was anxious (early in the season). He started the first game obviously of the year with Kobe sitting on the bench and got off to a tough start. But he’s been playing much better as of late.
“I know he had some open shots the other night that didn’t go down for him, but we expect them to go in because he’s really a good shooter and works hard at it.”
If you watch the FSN West special on Vujacic’s path to the Lakers, you learn that his nickname in Italy was “The Giant Killer,” for the big shots he hit so often against top teams. Vujacic definitely lived up to that nickname Sunday against the Mavericks.
Vujacic raised his shooting percentage for the season from 37.4 percent to 40.6 percent after Sunday’s game. He’s still so young that he won’t turn 23 until March 8.
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Jackson became the fastest coach ever to 900 victories in his career. He ranks ninth on the all-time list, trailing Dick Motta in eighth with 935 victories. Red Auerbach ranks seventh with 938.
“They’re a lot of guys in the game that are coaching right now that have 1,000 wins, 900,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what I am down on the list – - probably 10th or so all-time. But I can remember when Red Auerbach stood up there all by (himself) when I was a player.
“You looked at the wins that coaches had and no one else was even close. Over the past 20 years, all these coaches that I’ve grown up with, watched coach, played ball against – - Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson, Larry Brown – - have all reached that milestone.
“It’s become a game in which us elderly guys are now coaching, which was an age that coaches really didn’t extend themselves into (these) ranks when I was a player. So it says something about the longevity of coaches now.
“And it’s a compliment to all the players that I’ve had, the great players, the great teams and the great runs that we’ve had to be able to accept this kind of as gratitude to them.”
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The Lakers shot 61.1 percent in the fourth quarter and had eight assists against no turnovers. The last time the Mavericks gave up 100 points was to he Lakers back on Dec. 13 in the victory that started the 13-game streak.
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You get the feeling that the last team the Mavericks want to see is the Lakers in the playoffs. The Lakers are now 12-2 against Dallas at Staples Center in their history. They were on the wrong end as Kobe Bryant outscored them 62-61 through three quarters of a game last December. Then they lose Sunday for the first time in nearly a month to a Lakers team playing without two injured starters. The two teams meet again in Dallas on Jan. 18.
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By Ross Siler
Long after the game ball from Sunday nights 101-98 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks has gone into storage, Lakers coach Phil Jackson will be left with the memories from the 900th victory of his career.
They will be stirring to say the least, with the Lakers ending the Mavericks 13-game winning streak, Sasha Vujacic hitting the biggest 3-pointer of his career and Jacksons team taking its place among the NBA elite.
When he walked into the locker room afterward, Jackson was greeted by a standing ovation from his players, including teenage center Andrew Bynum, who was all of 2 years old when Jackson won his first game.
“It was awesome, Kobe Bryant said. “I know Phils not going to beat his chest about it or anything like it. But it was important for everybody here to take notice of what we just saw tonight. Its special, man.
The Mavericks streak started with a 110-101 victory over the Lakers on Dec. 13 in Dallas and ended 25 days later at Staples Center. That the Lakers did so without injured starters Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown made it all the more remarkable.
“I think right now were one of those teams that were good enough to beat anyone in the NBA, Luke Walton said. “When we play the teams like the Mavericks or the Spurs we really get up and step our games up.
“Weve got to learn how to play like that all the time, though. Thats how you get one of the high seeds in the playoffs and get the home-court advantage.
The Lakers trailed by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter and 96-92 with 1:29 remaining. Bryant scored 14 points in the quarter and started the final push by driving the lane and scoring while being fouled by Dirk Nowitzki.
They led briefly, then trailed 98-97 after a Nowitzki layup with 41.9 seconds left. With Dallas committed to stopping Bryant, though, Walton drove the lane and fired a pass back outside to Vujacic for an open 3-pointer with 28.5 seconds remaining.
“What we had to do, Vujacic said, “and what I could see at that time was just be open on the side and they will find me.
After making just 1 of 7 shots and missing all five 3-pointers Friday against Denver, Vujacic bounced back two nights later to connect on 6 of 7 shots and finish with a career-high 16 points.
It was the highlight of Vujacics young career and he stayed in the locker room long after the game to enjoy it. Vujacic hit three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and helped force a key Jason Terry turnover in the backcourt.
“Im proud of him because hes taken his lumps here, Bryant said. “The fans have been pretty hard on him. But what people dont understand about him, hes a tough kid.
“Hes not going to back down. Hes not going to stop being aggressive. Hes not going to stop working hard. When you have that combination of things, then fans will turn around because theyll see it.
The Lakers shot 54.9 percent, totaled 26 assists as a team and won the fourth quarter 33-21. Their fourth-quarter lineup primarily was Bryant, Vujacic, Walton, Maurice Evans and Ronny Turiaf.
Smush Parker came up with a spectacular block of a Terry dunk with 16.9 seconds left to preserve the win. Former Lakers forward Devean George missed a tying 3-pointer for Dallas with 3 seconds to play.
Bryant finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists. He played all but 1:07 in the second half and asked to guard Nowitzki in the fourth quarter after the Lakers previous options of Brian Cook and Vladimir Radmanovic had failed.
“Just looking at the matchups out there, I felt like I wanted to take my crack at guarding him, Bryant said. “Ive never guarded him before. Never. I was a little bit curious to see about his offensive game, what makes him special.
Nowitzki scored eight points in the fourth and 29 for the game. Bryant was giving up at least six inches to the Mavericks All-Star forward. Jackson eventually moved Bryant off Nowitzki in favor of Turiaf for the final 2:51.
Walton totaled 21 points, six assists and three rebounds, with eight of his points in the fourth quarter. Bryant drilled three jumpers to open the fourth but had to give up the ball as the Mavericks sent two and three defenders in his direction.
“When we didnt trap him, he scored, Dallas coach Avery Johnson said. “When we trapped him, it seemed like Walton and Vujacic made a lot of big shots on us. So everything that we tried on them in the fourth quarter didnt work.
After the streamers fell to the floor and the players celebrated, the question of the Lakers place in the NBA hierarchy came up.
The Lakers (23-11) are only a half-game out of the top four in the Western Conference and have beaten San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah and Dallas all at Staples Center this season.
They have won four consecutive games, the latest being possibly the most improbable victory since the Shaquille ONeal trade. They are now 3-0 without Odom and Brown, both of whom will likely be sidelined most of January.
“We can certainly play up to certain teams in games, said Jackson, fastest ever to 900 victories. “Theres no doubt about it. But we had to emotionally come out of our skin a little bit tonight and work really hard at doing it.’
Walton summed things up simply, saying, “Theyve done a great job of putting a bunch of team players together.