Phil Jackson Motivated the Lakers by Bluntly Saying Their Season Was Over in the Middle of a Playoff Game: ‘I’ll See You Guys Next Year’

Phil Jackson loved using psychological tactics to motivate his players, even going so far as to admit defeat in the middle of a massively consequential Los Angeles Lakers playoff game.

The Lakers were in dire straits entering the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Jackson bluntly suggested LA might not have enough to beat the Portland Trail Blazers before abruptly breaking the huddle.

The solemn nature of Jackson’s message could have alienated his players. Instead, the Lakers launched one of the greatest comebacks in NBA Playoff history.

The Lakers were on the verge of fumbling away the 2000 Western Conference Finals to the Portland Trail Blazers

Initially, the Lakers appeared to have a stranglehold on the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

Phil Jackson’s team raced out to a 3-1 series lead after a rampant second half led to a win in Game 4. Moreover, the Lakers had the comfort of playing Game 5 at home. But the Blazers roared back into the series.

Motivated by an emphatic gesture from Scottie Pippen, Portland won Game 5 in LA. The Blazers then held their home court in Game 6 to even the series. Suddenly, Portland had all the momentum.

Indeed, the Blazers took it to the Lakers early in Game 7. They outscored LA 29-19 in the third quarter to take a 13-point lead into the final period and later extended the lead to 15 with just over 10 minutes to play.

The Lakers appeared to be on their way out of the playoffs. Rather than try to encourage his players, Phil Jackson decided to expose them to the likelihood of losing.

Phil Jackson told his players they might not be good enough to win

Former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson lowers his head during an NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000
Phil Jackson hangs his head low after calling a timeout in a game between the Los Lakers and the Portland Trailblazers in 2000 | Scott Nelson/AFP via Getty Images

The Lakers found themselves in a ditch. Phil Jackson left it to his players to dig themselves out.

During an episode of TNT’s NBA Open Court (h/t YouTube, 8:00 mark), former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal recalled what Jackson said before the start of the fourth quarter. According to Shaq, Jackson kept things short and sweet.

“[Phil Jackson] came in and said, ‘OK guys. We had a great season. Maybe we’re not ready for this team. I’ll see you guys next year.’ And then he just went back out.”

–Shaquille O’Neal, NBA Open Court

Some coaches prefer to exhibit a more feisty nature in motivating their players. True to his nickname and adherence to Buddhist philosophy, Jackson went in an entirely different direction.

The Zen Master’s suggestion that LA wasn’t “ready” for the Blazers almost had humiliating undertones. That in itself seemed enough to light a fire under his players. As Shaq said, everyone looked around in disbelief before saying “Oh hell no” and returning to the floor.

Jackson successfully irked his guys. The Lakers launched one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.

The Lakers stormed back to win the game and the series

The Lakers used Jackson’s words as fuel, immediately climbing back into the game.

Portland led 75-60 when Shaq made a layup with just over 10 minutes to go in the game. That began a massive run. The Lakers scored the next 13 points to tie the game, with the Blazers 12 missing straight shots during the course of LA’s surge.

Brian Shaw helped key LA’s spurt with a pair of 3-pointers, including the one that tied the game with four minutes remaining. Portland ended its scoring drought after Rasheed Wallace scored with under three minutes to play, and Sheed kept the Blazers afloat with another jumper just over a minute later. But it was too late.

The Lakers had been ignited. Kobe Bryant scored four straight points to give LA a slight edge, then connected O’Neal with one of the most famous lobs in NBA history. The play practically tore the roof of the Staples Center and put a stamp on the comeback.

Had LA lost the game, the front office — as Shaq said on Open Court — might have broken up the team. Instead, the Lakers’ comeback eventually propelled them to an NBA title and a three-peat.

That historic run may be lost to history if not for some brutal honesty and acute motivational tactics by Phil Jackson.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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