Last game together for Kobe and Phil?

DALLAS -- Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant have been down this road before, hurtling toward elimination, with Jackson destined to leave whenever the games come to an end.

The difference is this time the two aren't publicly clashing along the way as they did in Jackson's previous "Last Season." One of the more underappreciated stories in the NBA has been the way Jackson and Bryant quickly forged a productive relationship during their final six years together after the 2003-04 season left them as far apart as Istanbul and Iowa City -- and left Jackson unemployed.

One playoff-less season later, the Lakers brought Jackson back, and he and Bryant asserted their status as the most successful coach-star duo of the past decade and one of the greatest of all time. And if it's about to come to an end, with the Lakers one loss to the Mavericks away from ending their season and Jackson's coaching tenure, then they'll go down together, "Thelma & Louise" style.

That doesn't mean they're getting sentimental, spending Saturday night in the hotel lobby bar sipping drinks and reminiscing over the old days. Jackson has a game plan to prepare. He didn't coach 11 championship teams by allowing distractions to creep into his mind easily. Then again, he's never been in a situation like this, with a 3-0 deficit forcing his five children to fly to Dallas to be there in case this is their father's final game. There have been questions about this last go-round since before the playoffs started, and the closer the end gets, the more Jackson tries to avoid talking about it. But it's undeniably there.

It's interesting that after the Lakers dropped their first two games at home to the Mavericks, Bryant thought of Jackson's legacy, not his own. Kobe had a chance to overcome a 2-0 series deficit in a way Michael Jordan never had to keep alive his quest to match Jordan's six championships. Instead, he told Jackson that it seemed appropriate that his last season should feature a new hurdle to overcome.

While Bryant will mock the most Zen-like aspects of Jackson's ways, he'll also recite some of Jackson's basketball philosophies and attribute it to the time they've spent together.

It's a far cry from a relationship that seemed unsalvageable during the 2003-04 season. When the Lakers made the unusual move of announcing they were yanking Jackson's contract extension offer from the table right before the 2004 All-Star break, Bryant's reaction consisted of three cold words: "I don't care." They shared the same space strictly because they were on a metaphorical chain gang.

We later learned from Jackson's book "The Last Season" that the coach had already gone to management and said "I've had it with the kid," deemed him "uncoachable" and tried to get the Lakers to trade him.

All it took was one year apart for them to appreciate their value to each other. Bryant struggled in Rudy Tomjanovich's offense that didn't create as much space and isolation as the triangle. If Jackson was going to return to coaching, he didn't want to start in a completely new environment. And if he was going to have a chance to leave Red Auerbach behind on the coaching championship list, he'd need a superstar. The Lakers and Bryant were his best options.

It worked because it had to work. But it worked even better than most thought possible. In their second season back together, I couldn't believe some of the words Bryant told me about Jackson: "It's a beautiful relationship. It's a relationship that I think is great because of what we went through, because of all the criticism or the book or whatever, we're able to put it behind us and he understands that I truly believe that everything I've become as a basketball player and what I've learned is directly attributed to him and his coaching staff."

And finally, this: "At the end of the day, I play to please him."

Just as surprising as Bryant's positive words about Jackson were the lack of negative words from Jackson about Bryant. No coach calls out his players in the media more than Phil, but Bryant has been noticeably exempt during Jackson's second run in Lakerland.

On Saturday, Jackson confirmed what I've long suspected: He and Bryant made a pact upon his return that Jackson would refrain from publicly criticizing him. "When I came back in '05-06, we had a talk," Jackson said. "We talked about, if I'm coming back, there's some criteria that we have to meet."

Jackson asked Bryant what conditions he wanted. According to Jackson, Bryant's reply was: "The only one is, when we have to work things out, let's do it between us."

Bryant has a simpler explanation for why they're a better fit now: "We're missing the other piece."

Shaquille O'Neal is no longer wedged between them as he was from 1999 to 2004.

While Jackson appreciated Kobe's work ethic and often counted on Bryant to provide energy on nights the rest of the team was lethargic, he shared O'Neal's belief that the ball should go inside to the big man first. That didn't exactly endear Jackson to Bryant.

With O'Neal gone, Bryant had unquestionable top-dog status. And the more that was affirmed, the more Bryant was willing to share credit with Jackson.

Jackson has done his best to make an aging Bryant look good lately. He's limited his minutes, to 36 per game when he could, expanding to 38 as the situation became more urgent. The plan appeared to work perfectly through three quarters of Game 3, as Bryant made 6 of 10 shots for 13 points in addition to six assists and the Lakers held the lead entering the fourth.

But Bryant had yet another late fade, missing his final four shots and committing a turnover in the critical minutes. He has now made 12 of 37 shots (32 percent) in the fourth quarter during the playoffs. The Mavericks have succeeded by using Jason Kidd on Bryant late in games.

"They're forcing him farther and farther out," Jackson said. "Kidd's getting underneath his body, forcing him off his key spot he likes to play from. We'll get into some of that."

Can Jackson devise a way to help Bryant return to his traditional closing role? Can Bryant extend Jackson's coaching career?

More than ever, their fates are linked.