- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- He came back out of duty more than desire.
Answering a call only the purest competitors can hear. Hoping, more than needing, to finish with a grand flourish.
And so it should surprise no one that Phil Jackson walked away from the Los Angeles Lakers' training facility Thursday afternoon with a bemused grin.
A little more than 12 hours had passed since the walls around his team began to buckle in a catastrophic loss 93-81 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
The sting of the loss was still raw. The bleak new reality it created just now coming into focus.
But Jackson, with eyes only for his car, had a wry smile on his face as left the Lakers' practice court for what could've been the last time in his Hall of Fame career.
Panic, as always, was better left to the masses.
"I'd like to cry," he joked just a few minutes earlier. "But I can't right now."
This series is either half over or just beginning.
This postseason is either coming to an end or nearing its midpoint.
The end of Jackson's career is either near or still far away.
For lesser men who have been through less in their lives, those ironies could be daunting. For Jackson, they seem delicious.
If this really the end, if his self-proclaimed "Last Stand" is going to end in a whimper, he will end it mirthfully, knowing that he can only control so much and that sometimes you just lose.
"It's a game, and we know it's a game," he said both plainly and esoterically. "When we play it, we play it hard. We anticipate winning in Dallas."
It was, in three sentences, an articulation of his entire way of being and of coaching.
It's the reason the Lakers, and before them the Chicago Bulls, have won so many titles with him as their leader; and also why the Lakers may end this season so anemically.
"It's all about execution, minimizing mistakes and doing the right thing. I hate to make it so simplistic, but that's what it is," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "You can't get caught up in the emotions of things.
"You never want to get too high or too low. We believe in that."
This time of year, in years past, Bryant has been serious and stoic. His face projected strength, his jaw jutted with defiance.
We laughed and called it his "Kobe face."
This year, he's the one laughing.
Bryant preceded Jackson in addressing the media Thursday and acted like the warm-up act, cracking joke after joke, each one dripping with a light-hearted sarcasm.
"Just play the next game," he said when asked if he's learned anything after weathering past storms. "It's not that big of a deal to win two games in a row."
It's funny, after all of their years together, to see Bryant parrot Jackson so seamlessly. Funnier still when you consider how many times they crossed each other early on.
But the two men came to a meeting place a few years back, locked eyes and knew they needed each other to get to their place in history.
At the time it was a marriage of convenience. But in the last few years it has grown into a genuine respect.
Toward the end of his interview session, a reporter asked Bryant if he liked that Lakers center Andrew Bynum spoke out about "trust issues" within the team following Wednesday's loss.
"I'm indifferent to it," Bryant said. "I've probably just been around Phil too long. It's not good, it's not bad. It is what it is."
It was both a stunning and completely innocuous answer. The best way to defuse a bomb.
And on a day when so much around the Lakers seems to have been leveled by one, it might have exactly the right note to strike.
Other coaches might have used the moment to yell.
Other players would have lashed out.
But Jackson is gonna play this one like he always has. And Bryant, for better or worse, is gonna ride shotgun.
"He doesn't change," Bryant said of his coach. "He's the same. The same as he was in the [NBA] Finals the last three years."
Yes, but what if this really is the end?
"I just don't believe we're going to lose," Bryant said. "So I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking about the next game and going from there."
And with that the Lakers were gone. Out the door, smiling.
On their way to Dallas for whatever comes next.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and a reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com
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