You’re the Best … No You Are… No You Are

Phil Jackson and Miami coach Pat Riley had nothing but kind words for each other on Thursday, as the surging Lakers downed the struggling Heat.

Before the game, Jackson was asked what he thought of a recent Sports Illustrated players poll which found that NBA players didn’t exactly luuuv playing for the notoriously demanding Riles.

“I think Pat runs a tight ship. A lot of players I know who’ve played there, Lamar for example, thought he dramatically improved his game there,” Jackson said.

A few minutes later, Odom confirmed as much:

“I was 24 and that’s exactly what I needed,” Odom said.

Riley in turn, was asked about his impressions of the Lakers:

“I think Phil has done an absolutely great job and then they made the trade of all trades and got Gasol and it put them over the top,” Riley said. “I’m very impressed by the other guys too. They have a lot of good young players who have matured and developed.”

A few minutes with Craig Hodges

One of the several areas the Lakers have taken large leaps this season has been in their outside shooting. The Lakers shot 35.3 percent last year on 3-pointers, 16th in the league. This season, they’re up to 37.5, good for seventh in the NBA.

I talked yesterday with special assistant coach Craig Hodges, the former NBA 3-point shooting champ who works with the perimeter shooters, about the progress of Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic, who have become markedly more consistent this season.

Farmar, in his second season, is shooting 39.3 on 3-pointers, up from 32.8 percent last year. He’s coming off a career-high four 3-pointers against Portland. Vujacic has improved each of his four seasons with the Lakers from 27 percent to 34.3 to 37.3 to this season’s 44.1, which leads the team.

Farmar’s improvement has been helped by better mechanics, which they spent his fiirst 7-8 months working on vigorously.

“Jordans a very assertive person, very aggressive in his nature,” Hodges said. “He wants to improve, and he wants to improve on every area of his game, and shooting is one of those things, especially somebody of his size — you have to be able to stick open jump shots. Thats been something Ive been trying to talk about from day one is the importance of your mechanics on your shot, trying to get it to be as close to the same every time, where its almost a cookie cutter effect. The more you work on it, the more you start to see the results within the game situation. Thats whats happening for him now.”

For Vujacic, the emphasis has been on the mental approach — being disciplined enough to stay with your mechanics and confident enough to shrug off misses.

“With Sasha, sometimes it takes players a little longer,” Hodges said. “Weve been working on stuff for the last three years, as far as staying with the shot, not floating, making sure he finishes on every shot, making sure every shot is a quality jump shot. Thats the biggest part now is theyre starting to see some results in as far as the balls going in the basket.

“The middle of last year you could see his level of confidence, where you could see he knew he belonged. Sometimes as young players you can have trouble trying to find your way. The last year and a half, hes been more focused on his determination to be a professional. Its not just a game anymore, its a business.

“When you come out here, you have to be of a serious mindset so that you can be successful and have things happen that you want to happen. Especially if youre a shooter you cant have a fragile temperament and worry about misses. Thats what I try to lend to these guys is to have some fun about shooting, but at the same time feel like every shot is going to go in.”

Because of the nature of the triangle offense, which is predicated on ball movement and spacing, most 3-pointers rarely require working to get your own shot.

“I never negate the fact that the system youre running and the passes youre getting from your teammates compliment the shooting,” Hodges said. “A good pass always leads to a good shot, especially in this system, you dont need to put the ball on the floor to be a good shooter.

“Thats the beauty of this system. Thats the thing Id like people to understand that even when you shoot the ball and it doesnt go in the basket, that often times its an assist because you have big fellas around the basket who can clean it up because you shot the ball within the rhythm and the context of the offense.”

Hodges said Vujacic and Farmar have also come to understand their role in the offense — that games like Farmar’s 21-point outburst against Portland isn’t going to be the norm.

“Your shots are going to be limited because of the nature of the team,” Hodges said. “Kobes going to get a lot of shots, Paus going to get a lot, Andrew, Lamars going to get his going at times. Its all a matter of lending yourself into the team concept and knowing what youre trying to accomplish as a unit. Everybody understands who our shooters are and everybodys going to look for them when theyre open. We just have to be prepared to make jumps shots.”

Despite their improvement, when the playoffs roll around, Hodges expects that Farmar and Vujacic will have to prove themselves all over again — that opponents will worry about slowing Bryant, Gasol, et. al.

“Definitely, there’s no question about it,” Hodges said. “Shooting is a premium, especially in the playoffs. You have to make shots to open up some of the paint for Andrew and Pau, and I think thats the beauty of this system. We have the least amount of adjustments to make in the playoffs because the nature of what we run, its not the screen and role, but were reading off what people throw at us. Thats what weve been doing all year. Thats the beauty of why Phils been so successful over the years. Weve had to make the least amount of adjustments and allows us to play a consistent level of basketball throughout the playoffs.”

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Stump speech

Or is it towering Sequoia speech?

Until Yao Ming announces who he’s backing, Barack Obama has won the nation’s tallest public endorsement — Blazers’ rookie Greg Oden announced on his blog this week that he’s voting for Obama. The Illinois senator’s campaign says Oden will stump for Obama, too.

Odom, who has missed the entire season after microfracture surgery, accompanied the Blazers to Los Angeles this week. I asked him about the brief phone conversation he had recently with Obama.

“My agency set it up, we were talking about the video that he made and there were questions about if I could be in the video, then it came up to talking with him, so that’s what happened,” Oden said.

“It was cool. It was very brief, it wasnt like we were talking about politics. We just had a conversation, a lot about sports. He talked a lot about this team, He knew about LaMarcus [Aldridge], about Brandon [Roy]. It was good even if it was quick.”

Oden, who is 20, will be voting for the first time. He said he doesn’t follow politics closely and doesn’t know many of the ins and outs of Obama’s policy proposals, but he’s read some of his thoughts on education, health care and civil rights. He said the opportunity to help elect an African-American president didn’t play a role in his decision.

“I dont really look at it like that,” he said. “ I’m looking at the person who I feel thats best to run this country. “I dont know a lot, but I know enough that thats who Im going to vote for.

“The way I look at it, he’s talking about things for — not my immediate family, but my other family. Things that are going to help them. I know I can take of me, my mother and my brother, but looking out for my grandmother, people I cant always take care of all the time things that are going to help them.”

Das boot

Trevor Ariza was on the practice court Wednesday, trying to work on his shot while wearing a protective boot on his right foot as he tries to recover from a broken bone.

Phil Jackson was asked if he expects Ariza to be able to return to his role as a key contributor off the bench.

“I cant guess on that,” said Jackson, who expects him to return by April. “Were really hopeful that he will. With Trevor, his injury is such that when he does come back, its probably a matter of days to coming back and playing full bore. His process is a healing position. Once its healed, everything should go forward from there. His condition. Hes shooting. Still trying to keep himself in position where he can come out and play. Hell have an opportunity to get in a rhythm.”

Team of the future

The Blazers may be fading — the loss was their ninth in 11 games — but this team looks like it’s on the way to becoming a true force in the Western Conference. Even with last year’s rookie of the year and this year’s leading scorer, Brandon Roy, out with a right ankle sprain, imagine this lineup next year:

PF LaMarcus Aldridge — Looking like Dwight Howard of the West
SF Travis Outlaw — 6-foot-9, long and still quick enough to stay with Kobe Bryant
C Greg Oden — If you think Andrew Bynum is a shot blocker . . .
SG Brandon Roy — an All-Star in his second year, looking like Dwyane Wade of the West
PG Steve Blake/Jarrett Jack — they could do better.

A capable versatile bench with Martell Webster looking like a protypical sixthman, James Jones, Channing Frye and Joel Pryzbilla are no worse than solid.

If the Blazers upgrade at point guard — Sam Cassell might be a perfect fit, Beno Udrih wouldn’t be bad, and Baron Davis and Allen Iverson could opt out — and add a shooter or improve the ones they have, the scary part is that Oden, Roy, Aldridge, Outlaw and Webster are 20, 23, 22, 23 and 21. Yikes.

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Je ne sais quoi

The Lakers clearly struggled at times with length and athleticism of the Blazers, needing to win the game at the defensive end. It was the first meeting of the season with Portland, but it hasn’t been easy recently. The teams have now split their last six meetings over three seasons.
“You have to put it in perspective that Portland always gives us a hard time,” said Rony Turiaf.
And why is that?
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I really don’t know,” said the Frenchman, shaking his head. “ All I know is every time we play them we have a hard time. You can look at the box scores, it’s always like that. Regardless of who is on the roster, regardless of what has happened. We always have a hard time. I don’t know why, though.”

College daze

With Farmar tying a career high with 21 points, including a career-best four 3-pointers, it was noted on press row what the UCLA backcourt would be like if he had stayed in Westwood, along with Arron Afflalo — now a rookie with the Pistons who left school early.

Imagine, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison — two possible lottery picks this spring — coming off the bench.

Then again, at USC, imagine Tim Floyd wouldn’t mind teaming O.J. Mayo with Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt.