Arash Markazi
Friday January 18th, 2008

There's a smile on Phil Jackson's face as he maneuvers around the Staples Center court, teaching pressure defense to a handful of grade-school kids the night before the Lakers play the Suns.

"You're Steve Nash," he says, pointing to a kid who's about waist high before calling out the other kids. "You're Shawn Marion, you're Raja Bell, you're Amaré Stoudemire and you're Grant Hill."

As she watches the scene, Jeanie Buss, who helped coordinate this "Basketball 101" for Lakers fans, has an equally wide smile on her face.

"The way he moves on the court, I haven't seen in years," says Buss, the daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Jackson's girlfriend. "He's gone through two hip replacements and now he's completely healed and he's gotten his strength back. He looks 10 years younger."

Jackson not only looks younger but he also doesn't mind talking younger, offering his opinion on one of the hotter pop-culture topics of the week as he sits beside Buss after his basketball tutorial.

"They shouldn't have focused on Tony like that," Jackson says of the controversy surrounding Tony Romo's Mexican vacation with Jessica Simpson. "He went with teammates and their wives or whatever. These guys can get back and focus pretty quickly. It was the press. Because the press makes a big deal out of it, people start to converse about it and it becomes a thing."

Buss simply shakes her head as she listens to Jackson's rationale.

"A year ago, before the All-Star break, you addressed your team and said, 'You guys are going to have a couple days off, don't do anything stupid,' " she says. "And you had a player [Vladimir Radmanovic] who decided he wanted to take that weekend to learn how to snowboard, and it was a huge problem [he separated his shoulder and was out for eight weeks]. I would imagine a lot could go wrong in Mexico -- I've heard stories, so I don't think it was such a great decision."

Like most smart boyfriends, Jackson concedes the argument to Buss, admitting that she's usually right.

"We had some problems early in the season playing games on Sundays," Jackson says. "We lost to New Jersey and Orlando on back-to-back Sundays, and I came home the night after we lost to Orlando and I told Jeanie that this is where we fell into a bad rhythm last year. Too much one-on-one, not enough ball movement, our defense didn't hold together. We made mistakes and looked at each other like we were foreigners in the locker room at the end of the game. Jeanie told me it would be fine. She said, 'You're going to go to Minnesota and they're struggling and you'll get some momentum.' She was right. We went on the road and beat Minnesota and Denver, and we've been on a nice run ever since."

While the Lakers' seven-game winning streak was snapped by Phoenix on Thursday night, dropping them from the top spot in the Western Conference, they are still one of the season's biggest surprises. After an offseason clouded by Kobe Bryant's trade demands and talk that he couldn't win with the team general manager Mitch Kupchak had assembled, the Lakers have quietly become one of the youngest, deepest and, when healthy, dangerous teams in the league.

"Kobe loves to play basketball, and once the season got under way and he got on the court playing, he recognized that some of these youngsters are better than he anticipated they would be, especially [Andrew Bynum]," says Tex Winter, the architect of the famed triangle offense and a consultant for the Lakers. "Initially, Kobe wasn't that high on Bynum, and now he sings his praises and that makes a difference. Kobe wants to win, and now he sees that he can win with this team."

Winter is one of the few members of the Lakers' organization who even acknowledges the turmoil that surrounded the team during the summer. Most everyone else either shrugs it off as overblown or, in Bryant's case, completely ignores that it ever took place.

"I've won three titles before and I know what you need to have to win a championship, and we have some good pieces here," Bryant says. "We have length, we have speed, we have athleticism, we have a defensive mind-set, and I can close ball games out. So when we get the big fella back, we'll be fine."

The "big fella" these days for Bryant is Bynum, who has finally begun to fill the size 23 shoes left by Bryant's last "big fella," Shaquille O'Neal. During the summer, Bryant was infamously videotaped telling a group of fans in a parking lot that the Lakers should ship out Bynum. Now Bryant is counting down the days until the 20-year-old center gets back onto the court. Bynum, who is averaging 13.1 points and 10.2 rebounds, is expected to miss two months with a dislocated kneecap.

"My mom always said I sat on a pile of manure and smelled roses," Jackson says. "I'm the kind of guy that sees the optimistic end of life, so this is an opportunity for Kwame [Brown] and other guys to step up."

Brown, 25, is easily the Lakers' biggest enigma. At 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2001 NBA draft has all the physical tools to be a dominating force. But he is still stuck in first gear, and the jury's still out on whether the coaching staff will ever be able to push him into second and beyond.

The logical solution would be to pair him up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has helped mold Bynum into a solid NBA starter three years removed from playing in high school.

"That's difficult because Kwame is a peculiar case," Abdul-Jabbar says. "I would leave that to Phil to explain how peculiar Kwame is. He's not a bad guy; it's just very hard to get through to him and I haven't done it yet."

So what's so peculiar about Brown?

"I call him a knucklehead once in a while," Jackson says. "Kwame has to be led to water and then forced to drink. [Assistant coach] Brian [Shaw] and I have always said there are some peculiarities about his game. For example, when he drives left, Kwame will finish right-handed, but he'll always pause or fake and wait for the defensive player to catch up to him. We can't get it through his head to just take that move because you're going to beat the guy anyway. You might get fouled, but Kwame does not enjoy foul situations and making a team pay because his free throw percentage is below 50 percent."

During the Lakers' loss to the Suns, Brown was booed loudly by the home crowd every time he touched the ball after continuing to miss dunks and layups and mishandle simple post passes. While Jackson kept Brown in the game, hoping he'd work through his problems, he never did. Brown quickly left the locker room after the game without talking to the media.

"I thought it was terrible," Bryant said of the fans' response to Brown's seven-turnover game. "I don't feel they should react like that. If they want to do that, they should stay home. He's going to be our center for two months and if anything we should support him. We can't tear him down. ... I told him I got his back; I don't care how many times they boo him. He's going to be fine. He's going play well the next game and they're going to chant his name the next game.

"Kwame's sensitive. You boo him and it's going to affect him."

While rumors have circulated that the Lakers may be interested in signing Chris Webber, Jackson seemed uninterested in adding the 14-year veteran.

"I think Chris is an accomplished offensive player," Jackson says. "My concern as always has been defense and rebounding, and that's a part of the game that has passed Chris by."

At the moment, Jackson seems content to ride out this recent injury wave, with the losses of Bynum, Radmanovic (ankle) and center Chris Mihm (ankle) leaving the Lakers little depth on the front line.

"If we can survive this period of time, we have a good chance of maintaining what we want to do," Jackson says. "That's to finish in the top four in the Western Conference, which would get us home-court advantage in the first round. I think that's a realistic goal for this team."

Despite their injury problems, the Lakers through Thursday were only a half game behind the Suns for the West's best record. They play three of their next five games at home before a brutal nine-game road trip through the first two weeks of February that Jackson believes will define the team's season. Jeannie Buss, however, is only worried at the moment about the Lakers' fortunes during the next two weeks.

"This is funny," Buss says as she turns and grins at Jackson. "It might not be funny to Phil, but in the eight years that I've known him, he's only had to coach the All-Star team once. And what the NBA dictates is that the coach of the team that's in first place [in its conference after games on Feb. 3] has to coach the All-Star team. So, honey, we might be going to New Orleans."

"We'll see," says Jackson, flashing that smile again. "I can do something about that."

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