It was as if nothing had changed: Phil Jackson, standing in front of the Bulls’ championship backdrop in the media interview room and holding forth after a game. It was just like old times.

Only different. Jackson, like Scottie Pippen before him this season, was returning to the United Center for the first time as an opponent. And, like Pippen’s, his team was flying high; Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers are in a struggle with Pippen’s Portland Trail Blazers to claim home-court advantage through the playoffs with the best regular-season record in the NBA. At the time of Jackson’s Chicago visit, the Lakers were a half game behind the Blazers, their 37-11 record almost the mirror image of the Bulls’ 10-37.

Not until the postgame media conference would Jackson admit how important the game was to him personally. What was clear from the first was that more had changed around the United Center than just his team affiliation. Thirty minutes before the game the place was like a canyon–empty and echoing–where a couple of years ago it would have been buzzing with excitement. The Bulls’ sellout streak continues, but no-shows left large gaps of empty seats at both the 100 and 300 levels–though fewer than normal, prompting Bulls’ coach Tim Floyd to comment later about how enjoyable it was to play before such a large and involved crowd. Anyway, the stands were barely half filled when Jackson made his entrance just before the introductions. He arrived without fanfare, but a large entourage of TV cameras created its own stir, and he was warmly cheered by the fans already in their seats. Jackson later said he was thankful that the photographers had shielded him from any eye-to-eye contact with the fans, and also that the Bulls had graciously declined to offer him the kind of pregame ceremony that greeted Pippen on his return. “I would have broken down and cried,” Jackson said, with that enigmatic grin that made it unclear if he was being ironic. Jackson and starting guard Ron Harper, another Chicago transplant, were both cheered in the Lakers’ introductions. When the Bulls were introduced, it was almost as if the lights had been turned out for the wrong team.

Jackson has worked his usual inspirational wonders, turning the Lakers from a talented but lethargic team into true championship contenders in his first season as their coach, but this was not the best game for putting his achievements on display. For one thing, it was both teams’ first game after the all-star break, meaning they’d be rusty. For another, Jackson had said earlier in the season that he feared the Lakers peaked early with a 16-game win streak. Since then, Jackson–in at least a couple of games I saw televised–seemed to cut down on his coaching in an attempt to force the team to fend for itself for a while, a ploy he’d used on occasion with the Bulls. While the TV in his players’ locker room before the game was showing a tape of the Bulls-Lakers contest earlier this season in LA, I noticed through an ajar door that the TV in the coaches’ room was tuned to a rerun of The Simpsons. Jackson’s coaching during the game didn’t show much more involvement than that.

It was interesting to see both teams running the triangle offense. Tex Winter, the Bulls’ former assistant and the man who developed the triangle, has followed Jackson to LA, but the Bulls and Floyd continue to deploy it in his absence–more or less. The Bulls were running the triangle in perimeter mode, using their centers to set screens high, near the free throw circle. The Lakers, meanwhile, ran the more familiar low-post triangle, and they looked even less fluid than the current Bulls. What soon became apparent was that while the triangle is set up for any player to take the post, when Shaquille O’Neal wants it he simply shoulders aside a teammate as he would an opposing center. Double-teamed early in the first quarter, Shaq didn’t look for the open man. He simply plowed through the two Bulls and jammed–just as Jackson no doubt drew it up on the chalkboard.

Elsewhere, the Bulls’ 20-year-old rookie Ron Artest and the Lakers’ flashy third-year veteran Kobe Bryant–who is only a year older, having come to the NBA straight out of high school–were engaged in a bit of back-and-forth showmanship. They traded three-point baskets, but then Bryant stepped in front of Artest on a sloppy pass from Dickey Simpkins (a redundant phrase?) and drove for a fancy reverse dunk to establish dominance.

Yet there was something new to the Lakers, something different from their “show time” tradition. It was epitomized by O’Neal, who at one point late in the first quarter took a difficult alley-oop pass in traffic and sensibly laid the ball in off the backboard. A year ago Shaq would have tried to jam it, and if it bounced off the heel of the rim to center court, so be it. The new O’Neal stressed substance points over style points, especially on defense, where he frequently helped out against the Bulls’ star rookie, power forward Elton Brand, who was held to a rare double-single: eight points and eight rebounds.

O’Neal also made his free throws, an emblem of maturity and concentration that had been lacking in his game. In fact, in one nationally televised contest earlier this season, Jackson pulled O’Neal for the final minutes of a close game because he feared the opponents would foul him to put him on the line, prompting NBC announcer Bob Costas to say he had never seen a seven-foot, 300-pound player disappear before. Here, however, O’Neal shot his free throws the way a drunk throws darts–without an arc and with absolute tunnel vision. Asked after the game if O’Neal had turned a corner in his foul shooting, Jackson said, “It’s one day at a time in that sort of situation. It’s like an alcoholic.”

O’Neal made a sober 11 of 12 free throws on the night, and the critical sequence of the game found him on the foul line. The Bulls actually took a 67-62 lead early in the fourth quarter on a pair of back-to-back threes off Will Perdue screens by Matt Maloney and Chris Carr. The Lakers came back to tie on a basket and a three by Rick Fox. Then O’Neal tried to bull his way low around Perdue, who grabbed him around the waist and pulled him down like a rodeo cowboy who’d next try to rope his legs. Perdue was hit with a flagrant foul. (Floyd later tried to pooh-pooh it by saying, “Our muscle man threw their muscle man down,” but it was a bush-league play all the way.) O’Neal stepped to the line, drilled both free throws, and when the Lakers got the ball back out of bounds, immediately hit a shot in the low post. The new, “mature” Shaq couldn’t resist taunting the Bulls and got hit with a technical foul, but even after Maloney’s free throw it was still 71-68 Lakers, and they wouldn’t trail again.

It wasn’t pretty for the Bulls at the end. In the closing minutes Bryant skied down the lane unmolested to jam a Fox miss and put the Lakers up 85-72. With ten seconds left Carr lost the ball to Bryant and fouled him to prevent another poster dunk. Then Carr took the inbounds pass and drove for a dunk to make the final score 88-76. Big wow. In the 300 level, fan frustration boiled over on Toni Kukoc. One guy yelled, “Hey, Toni, ya wanna get in this game?” “Thank you very much, thank you very much,” seconded another guy. Kukoc was suffering through a mediocre 14-point night on 4-of-14 shooting, with just three rebounds and a single assist, but would the fans have picked on him had they known it was his final game with the Bulls? Kukoc was traded the next day to the Philadelphia 76ers in a deal that brought the Bulls a first-round draft choice from the Washington Bullets.

Brand and Artest are the team’s core now. The loss of Kukoc weakened the Bulls, meaning they probably will contend strongly for the worst record in the league and the top draft pick (though they promptly went out and won two in a row before losing to the Indiana Pacers and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs last week). The Bulls have a good shot at drafting seven-foot center Chris Mihm of Texas, and unless the Wizards get lucky by scoring a top-three lottery pick the Bulls also will have their pick (plucked indirectly from Michael Jordan, no doubt a little whipped cream on top where competitive general manager Jerry Krause was concerned). In the meantime, they got stuck with the hated John Starks, formerly of the New York Knicks. (When the trade was announced, every local TV sports anchor I saw used not Starks’s memorable, ferocious left-handed jam against the Bulls in the playoffs but his attempt to deliberately trip Pippen as the emblematic highlight of his career.) Krause hoped to deal Starks before the trading deadline passed a week ago Thursday, but couldn’t, likely meaning Starks will pout his way through the rest of the season here before the Bulls let him go as a free agent and spend his salary better next season. Yet as a bona fide bush leaguer, Starks has company on this team: Carr and Simpkins and Randy Brown and, yes, even the increasingly goonish Perdue. Brand and Artest appear to be a different breed entirely. Brand looks like a rock-solid piece of foundation at power forward. Artest has been more erratic, but I like his willingness to stand up to the Bryants of this league almost as much as I like his prim, stiff-armed way of walking to the bench for a time-out–like a second-grader leading the class to an assembly. Both should develop into leaders without a lot of prompting from Floyd.

Yet it’s also rewarding to see O’Neal develop belatedly in his seventh season under the influence of Jackson. Jackson invested a lot in this game, but in the end he simply let the players play and counted on them to respond. They did. “It’s special for me,” Jackson admitted afterward, “and it’s special for Shaq. He was really glad to contribute to that win tonight, and I thanked him for it.” There it was, another reminder of what makes Jackson unique as a coach–his ability to take athletes and challenge them as friends and colleagues. Jackson used to end his Bulls postgame media conferences by stating the team’s practice time for the following morning, and as he stepped away from the podium one local wag called out, “What time is practice tomorrow, Phil?”

There was jovial but bittersweet laughter all through the interview room, and it followed Jackson down the hallway–to the visitors’ locker room.