LOS ANGELES — If there is just one of Phil Jackson's theories that you should learn before his court time is done, it's the one about "the invisible leader."
That one, more than any, speaks to what Jackson has done so brilliantly with the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers. It is also so very Phil, all about the power of the Zen.
You know the gist of it without even knowing you know it, because you know Jackson never did bring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal into his office together for a forced clear-the-air meeting and you know Jackson just sits there and lets his guys fight through adversity and stalled momentum instead of calling timeouts all other coaches call.
Jackson's greatest aspiration is to be an invisible leader — having taught so profoundly and orchestrated so properly that everything falls into place without him having to strong-arm the moment.
Perhaps his past words helped or his previous practices lent structure, but he wants his players to create the rhythm and flow in this read-and-react team game so that the best moments just happen on their own.
Obviously, Jackson has done pretty well as the invisible leader; that's not what this is about.
This is about something far more remarkable having happened: Jackson has made Bryant into an invisible leader, too.
Yes, Kobe — previously unable to withhold neither scowl nor scream at a teammate's misstep — is perfectly willing even now to be bad cop to Derek Fisher's good.
But if you looked closely Tuesday night, you could see in so many ways in the Lakers' victory over the Bulls that Bryant was leading the team without having to stop the show himself.
It wasn't even that second star Pau Gasol dominated and Bryant could just cruise. Gasol struggled, and Bryant was deeply involved in everything the Lakers did. He just wasn't loud about it.
Let's meet the executive producer of the Shannon Brown Show.
That jump, hang and swing for a blocked shot that Brown got was straight out of the early chapters of Bryant's book. There was Brown trying discreetly to pop a rebound away by punching underhand at it ... another trademarked Bryant move.
And when Brown was at his hottest in the second quarter, Bryant got with Brown on the weak side of the triangle and bent it single-handedly to create the open shot for Brown to reach 4 for 4 on 3-pointers: Bryant controlled the ball at the pinch-post, waited for the right angle to screen Kyle Korver off from Brown and then executed both pass and pick.
The Lakers' big finish? The award for best director goes to ... Kobe Bryant.
The game's greatest closer had served as the opening act, scoring the Lakers' first seven points to establish his threat against Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, the former Celtics defensive coordinator whom Bryant said has a philosophy of "anybody but ..." — meaning he'll let anybody but Bryant beat him.
With that in mind, the alpha dog planned to morph into the invisible barker down the stretch.
Here's how the Lakers' lead grew from one point to 12 points in the middle of the fourth quarter:
Bryant is double-teamed before even making a move, so he passes to the unguarded Matt Barnes, who waltzes toward the rim and is fouled.
Bryant is not double-teamed, so he backs in to one of his spots and drops a 13-foot fadeaway. Bryant will not be left alone with single coverage again.
While Derrick Rose is shooting free throws, Bryant pulls new teammate Steve Blake aside off stage to draw out some details about positioning on the floor. Bryant's map will prove rather handy for Blake.
Smothered at the other end, Bryant passes up top to Brown, who moves the ball over to Blake, standing in that familiar spot where Fisher has so often launched open clutch shots. Blake hits the open 3-pointer.
With the Lakers coming up court in delayed transition, the Bulls defense tilts automatically to the right side of the floor because Bryant is there. So Brown moves the ball left, where Blake is all alone for another 3-pointer.
Thibodeau takes a timeout, suddenly trailing by a 95-83 count. Bryant's reaction? He stands there for a second, smiling at his frenzied teammates as if they are daughter Natalia's soccer team after it has scored a goal. Then Bryant looks to Brown and points individual credit his way ... as much for the proper decisions in passing as for the sharp shooting.
Bryant has always been able to grasp the nuances of the game, but he hasn't always been eager to embrace them when he could take over games in the warmth of that familiar spotlight. That "hockey assist" — the pass before the assist that goes uncredited in basketball — is one Jackson has harped on Bryant to make for years and years, and it's now to a point that Bryant makes it and enjoys making it.
For a great player, the most advanced coursework is the "make your teammates better" thesis, one that Bryant in 2008 really figured out was much more about building others' confidence than piling up your own assists.Comment on this story
Guess which thing is done more invisibly?
Bryant has learned that much from the invisible leader. And soon enough, it'll go a step further: The leader won't merely be invisible, he'll really be gone.
When Jackson retires, though, his legacy will live on ... because someone else can perform the magic now.
For the team's greater good, Bryant can make himself disappear, too.