Subplots abound in Heat-Lakers X-mas matchup
MIAMI – There are two games on the NBA’s Christmas lineup. One’s a rematch of Detroit and San Antonio, league finalists a season ago who have the two best records this year.The other, in Shaquille O’Neal’s estimation, is the game worth watching.”Bigger people. Bigger story behind it,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to be a big game.”After O’Neal opens his Christmas presents Sunday, his past meets his present when his Miami Heat host the Los Angeles Lakers, marking the third time he and Kobe Bryant will face off since their Hollywood split nearly 18 months ago.There are story lines beyond Shaq vs. Kobe, but that’s still a compelling one.”We had a great run. Three rings,” Bryant said. “I think people should leave it the hell alone and move on. … I understand it’s interesting, but we also have an interesting game. The game itself tomorrow is interesting.”
So are the subplots.Phil Jackson, whom O’Neal once called “the only coach I’ll ever play for,” is back with the Lakers and will face the center who teamed with Bryant to deliver three Tinseltown titles. Pat Riley is coaching Miami again, 17 years after winning his fourth title in L.A. – which tried wooing him back when Jackson left in 2004.There’s a marquee guard matchup with Bryant against Miami’s Dwyane Wade, Riley and Jackson renewing one of the NBA’s best coaching rivalries from the 1990s, the Heat’s Gary Payton against his old team, the Lakers’ Lamar Odom against his old team … oh, enough already, Bryant says.”How about us versus them?” Bryant said.Bah, humbug.O’Neal and Bryant still don’t seem to like each other, no surprise considering how their eight years with the Lakers ended in tumultuous fashion. Jackson says his former star duo will reconcile – someday.”I’m sure he’s going to juice up, as far as playing against Kobe,” Jackson said of O’Neal.Countered Shaq: “All my juices have been let out.”
Another interesting note is the records. This Miami team was built to contend for a title; it’s 15-12. The Lakers were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode; they’re 15-11.”We feel fortunate that we’re in a position where we’re looking down on the Miami Heat,” Jackson said. “Half-a-game lead. In a way, I’m surprised. And yet, we’ve got nothing to crow about.”Verbal salvos were fired between O’Neal and Lakers owner Jerry Buss in recent days, with Buss again mocking the 12-time All-Star’s weight and O’Neal saying the man who once signed his fat paychecks is acting like “an old girlfriend” who misses him.Just another game, indeed.”It’s a big game, a Christmas game, the marquee game, Shaq and Kobe and Phil and all that stuff,” said Riley, who’s 4-2 since Stan Van Gundy resigned as Heat coach. “It’s got a great sidebar to it.”Miami won last year’s Christmas matchup in Los Angeles, 104-102 in overtime when Bryant’s 3-pointer missed at the buzzer. Miami finished the season sweep at home on St. Patrick’s Day, 102-89.The Lakers have won nine of their last 11 games – with Bryant averaging 31.7 points in that stretch, including a career-best 62 against Dallas on Tuesday. Big scorers have given Miami big trouble lately.The Heat have allowed opposing players seven 30-point performances, five in the past 10 games, including Vince Carter’s 51 points Friday in the Nets’ 95-88 win.
“If we’re in a situation where I need to put points on the board, then I’ll do it,” Bryant said. “I really do it on a needed basis. I don’t do it just to do it. I don’t try to go into a game saying, ‘this is what I’m going to do.’ We’ve had a couple games where my teammates were struggling shooting the ball. Then I take it over.”In an on-court sense, there isn’t any Shaq-Kobe matchup, since they never guard one another. The key matchup is probably the one pitting Bryant and Wade, who enjoyed sweeping the series last year.”It has never been Shaq and Kobe,” Wade said. “The only thing would happen is Kobe would come driving, Shaq would foul him, the only time they would cross paths. So, it’s going to be an interesting matchup. … It’s going to be a great matchup.”A truer rivalry maybe was born in the last Heat-Lakers matchup, when Wade said Bryant told him at halftime to “stop crying” about uncalled fouls. Wade took over late, finishing with 27 in Miami’s victory.”It ain’t about Kobe and Dwyane, it’s about the Lakers and the Miami Heat,” Payton said. “We’re trying to get wins. We’re not trying to see if Kobe gets 80 or Dwyane gets 80.”So, as both sides stick to the ‘it’s-not-a-big-deal’ script, there’s proof the big game may turn into a bigger event. In online auctions, some tickets have sold for at least $1,050 apiece, far exceeding the asking price for good Heat playoff seats last spring.”Hopefully it’s the highest-watched game in NBA history,” O’Neal said. “So when I get old, I can tell my kids I played in the game where 700 million people watched.”
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