- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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DENVER -- Never before has Phil Jackson launched a season with a starting guard named Smush.
Never before has Jackson's Opening Night preparations involved serious plotting to find an entrée into the game for an 18-year-old center.
Even Jackson admits that never before has he coached a team this thin, this green, this dependant on the nine-ringed, modern-day Red Auerbach to stand up and bark at such needy players.
Scanning through all of the above, from a baseline seat mere feet from the bench Jackson has reclaimed, you were moved to conclude that the Zenmeister would only find one certain source of tranquility at the Pepsi Center.
Kobe Bean Bryant, believe it or not.
Then came more surprises.
Smush Parker proved more credible than anyone could have imagined, and the coach's only sure thing got some crunch-time help -- from other teammates and the folding home team -- all of which led to a dramatic, feel-good conclusion to the first take of Kobe & Phil Reunited.
Bryant's long jumper with less than a second remaining Wednesday night hoisted the Lakers to a 99-97 overtime triumph over the Denver Nuggets, ensuring an upbeat start to his new life with Jackson and the heavy glory-restoring burden they share.
"It's such a challenge," Bryant said shortly after his game-winner, clearly pleased to manufacture a 1-0 start under the microscope.
"He and I know that."
Said Jackson: "This win wasn't important for me, it was important for the team. But getting the win is twice as nice."
Not that you would have heard much postgame panic from the famously calm Jackson had the rally fallen short. Over and over in recent days he has reminded his media audiences how the Chicago Bulls began their first season without Michael Jordan in 1993-94. After a ceremony to collect their championship rings, Michael's supporting cast -- led by Scottie Pippen -- managed only 25 points in the first half and wound up absorbing a 24-point home thumping by Miami ... giving no hint of the 55-27 season that team wound up posting.
Forty-five wins would thrill Jackson with his new crew, but he keeps telling the story to support the contention that deep conclusions wouldn't be drawn on this night, whether the Lakers won or lost.
"Just go out and play one quarter at a time is what we're talking about," he said.
A press horde nonetheless descended upon Denver to check the temperature on the relationship Jackson is rebuilding with the superstar described as "uncoachable" in his latest book. The inquisition will continue all season, of course, but it's clear that the Phil-and-Kobe dynamic, at least for now, is the least of the Lakers' issues in Year 2 A.S. (After Shaq).
What Jackson needs most these days is a dependable scoring option or two that will allow the hungry Bryant to always have something left in the fourth quarter. The inescapable reality for much of the Lakers' opener is that Parker, an undrafted castoff from three teams, was the closest thing L.A. had to a No. 2 option against the Nuggets.
That would be the same Nuggets who were completing a back-to-back ... and playing without the fiery prodding of suspended coach George Karl ... and reeling from the news that Nene will miss the rest of the season after Tuesday's knee tear in San Antonio.
In the end, though, L.A. had just enough to capitalize on Denver's vulnerability. Parker finished with 20 points, Kwame Brown set up Bryant's OT dagger with an offensive rebound -- while playing through ligament damage in a heavily taped left thumb -- and Jackson vet Devean George added a gritty 14 points and eight boards off the bench, as well as some sticky defense on Carmelo Anthony. Jackson even managed to sneak in five minutes for Andrew Bynum, the 18-year-old center, after saying it was a must to get Bynum's "feet wet."
Lamar Odom seemed to be pressing in his new role of triangle initiator, missed 11 of 13 shots and earned a long stay on the bench for the first 5:09 of the fourth. But Bryant was there to do the rest, despite picking up his fourth foul early in the third quarter. He scored eight of L.A.'s nine points in the extra period, then proudly disclosed that his most intense offseason of conditioning kept him fresh in the Mile High altitude to the finish.
"And that's a first," Bryant said.
"We have this idea that we can compete," Jackson said, referring to himself and Bryant almost in braintrust fashion.
"But last year, it took so much for Kobe to get the team into that position, I think at the end of a lot of games it became very difficult for him because of fatigue."
Yet Jackson sees the obvious, even with Parker forgetting that he scored only 48 points last season in 16 games.
"At the beginning," Jackson said, "I think Kobe is going to have to carry a large share of the burden in scoring, until we find other people who can step in and score."
It's true even if the overeager Odom, so determined to live up to all the Pippen comparisons, settles soon.
"Michael Jordan was the best player of our generation and he played for Phil," Odom said. "One of the best combos in history was Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and I get to play for the coach that made it all work.
"His record speaks for itself. We play his percentages, [our future] looks pretty good."
This performance should ease Jackson's apprehension at least a little. He admitted beforehand that you'd have to go all the way back to that first season without Jordan, or maybe his first season as an NBA head coach in 1989-90, to identify a team that made him feel so unsure.
"A long time ago," he said.
Yet he insists that it's an invigorating challenge after taking 14 straight teams to the playoffs and nine of them all the way to a championship.
"I'm enjoying coaching this team," he said.
Yes. That includes his dealings with No. 8 and the uphill quest to get these Lakers up to No. 8 in the West at worst.
"We have a very deep, intuitive feeling about each other," Jackson told ESPN shortly after agreeing to a Laker comeback. "Any time you've worked as closely with someone as I have with a player like Kobe ... that's a relationship that goes very deep. So it's pretty natural for us to reconnect. I think it's going to be harder for other people to allow us to reconnect."
Which is why, when asked Wednesday if outsiders are finally starting to give them space, Jackson suggested that it doesn't matter. He had to stand up and chide his kids in a timeout a lot earlier than he likes, after a run of six uncontested Denver dunks or layups in the game's first eight-plus minutes, but he's determined not to give in to the skeptics.
Referring again to his sure thing, and the media's obsession with their partnership, Jackson said: "We've pretty much ignored you guys."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Phil Jackson's greatest coaching challenge will be this season and Kobe Bryant made sure it got off to a fast start, Marc Stein writes.