Lakers 99, Nuggets 97
On the first night of Phil Jackson's return to the team and game he gave up nearly 18 months ago, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers was asked to encapsulate the occasion.
"Have you ever heard that song, 'Reunited'?" someone inquired.
Jackson smiled, knowingly, and then actually broke into verse. "Reunited and it felt so good," the gray-flecked, soul-patched coach crooned. "Reunited."
It is unclear whether Jackson and his onetime problem child, Kobe Bryant, can mend fences as well as Peaches and Herb. Yet in one of those L.A. stories dying for a new-and-improved epilogue, Kobe and Phil were back together again. The event was a basketball game they both sorely wanted to win, and Bryant seized like he always has.
Bryant hit an implausible jump shot with six-tenths of a second remaining, backpacking Jackson's new roster like he used to backpack the old one.
Carmelo Anthony and his Denver Nuggets' upstarts look much better on paper than these Lakers and were moments away from putting them away in regulation. But they melted when it mattered, succumbing in overtime Wednesday night in their home opener at Pepsi Center to the guy wearing No. 8 in purple and gold, 99-97.
Bryant was spotty at times but superb in the final minutes, scoring eight of his 33 points and failing to let a Western Conference playoff team spoil his and Jackson's reunion.
For most of 48 minutes, it was Deja Phil.
In manner and appearance, Jackson has not changed much. The coat-hanger shoulders. The laborious gait. The raspy growl from the bench -- "Come on, Kobe!"
The lobbyist at heart, explaining to a referee plainly why Kenyon Martin was fouling his new center, Kwame Brown, in the post: "He can't put his knee in his butt like that." Also, the verbal evisceration of his players in a timeout huddle during a Denver third-quarter run.
And a new twist, entrusting Bryant with the ball as much as his legacy.
"We've pretty much ignored you guys," Jackson said of the incessant interest in his and Bryant's relationship. "We just want to get back to basketball. We've come together. What was there before is over and done and we've both got to a point where we want to make this a very good team again."
Bryant: "Believe it or not, we're worried about a lot of other things at this point."
Bryant was not much different, either. At times, he was the NBA's consummate performer, falling away while swishing jumpers, exploding down the right side for a violent dunk. But mixed in were a good number of forced shots and that Kobe-vs.-the-world mentality that reduces his teammates to season ticket holders.
The Denver Nuggets are what the Lakers were when Jackson first took them over in 1999 -- a contender in training. The Lakers are a compendium of parts led by the most breathtaking player of his generation and a 60-year-old, yoga-mat-toting, hoop junkie who had one last thing left to prove: Whether he could coexist with Bryant, a player he publicly ridiculed in "The Last Season," a tell-all book, and whom he often butted egos with during a tumultuous five years in Los Angeles.
"Hey, it's Hollywood," said Frank Hamblen, Jackson's top assistant who coached the Lakers for most of last season after Rudy Tomjanovich resigned for health reasons. "Everybody wants there to be friction, but there really isn't. We've got so many more issues."
Indeed, can Lamar Odom be a Scottie Pippen type of player that can initiate the offense like Michael Jordan's sidekick once did for Jackson's Bulls? Will Brown's change of scenery really help him grow as a player or will he revert to the unpredictable player the Wizards finally gave up on? Can Chris Mihm build on last year's breakout season? America might be worried about whether Phil and Kobe will exchange recipes any time soon, but the Lakers are more concerned with larger problems in their mind.
"Like, can Smush Parker be a starting point guard in this league?" Hamblen said.
Smush Parker? Bigger than the Zen-spouting coach and his humbled star trying to make it work without Shaquille O'Neal?
"Believe it or not, yes," said Brian Shaw, who played on three championship Laker teams before becoming an assistant coach last season. "Phil's going to coach and Kobe's going to play, period. It really is a non-issue among us. I mean, we did pretty well when no one was getting along, remember?"
Through sandbox feuds between O'Neal and Bryant, through Jackson trying to play liaison and, finally, the coach warring with his young star, the Lake Show returned to primetime under Jackson. After a 12-year drought -- Magic Johnson's last title was in 1988 -- the Lakers won over their city and a league again. They won three straight championships between 2000 and '02 and looked on the cusp of winning five or more before an implosion that ended with O'Neal leaving for Miami, Jackson retiring and Bryant becoming the fall guy for an organization gone sour.
The loss in the 2004 NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons was one of the great upsets in modern NBA history, and it ushered in a new era. Five non-Hall of Famers could beat two any day of the week if they played like a team, and the Lakers of Bryant and O'Neal were clearly not a team at the end.
Jackson was about to eclipse Red Auerbach's nine titles that season. He was about to be anointed the greatest coach in league history by many of his peers and the game's observers. The one criticism he always battled was the notion that Jackson always had a ready-made team, a Jordan and Pippen or Shaq and Kobe to compete for a title immediately. His detractors wondered why he didn't have the stomach to take on a rebuilding project and see if he could will a team back to the playoffs instead of always thinking championship.
Whether that perception bothered Jackson is up for debate. But he did come back to refurbish a dilapidated house. Last season, the Lakers lost 19 of their final 21 games and finished tied for last in the Pacific Division. The Lakers of 2005-06 are essentially Bryant and a cast of very good role players who may or may not coalesce.
They began the season on the floor of Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and the up-and-coming Nuggets -- a young team that appears as hungry as Bryant and O'Neal once were under Jackson.
Kobe-Phil notwithstanding, the real question is not whether the star and his coach can get along. It's whether they have the talent and moxie to become what the Lakers once were with a certain 7-foot-1, 330-pound man in the middle to bail both of them out.
"Apprehension? Yes, there's apprehension," Jackson said. "There's also a great anticipation. Obviously, I'm enjoying coaching again. Now let's see if all the right pieces can fall into place."