Kobe, Shaq ready for rematch
They've been there and done that, thanks to a Christmas Day game everybody watched and nobody will forget. The NBA schedule now calls for Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to get together for a second act tonight.
The only difference as Bryant and O'Neal meet on opposite sides for the second time (third if you count February's All-Star Game) since last summer's Lakers breakup is location, and for that you need to stand on Biscayne Boulevard to get a good look.
From the ticket windows to the roof on one side of American Airlines Arena hangs the image of O'Neal under the words "Daddy's Home,' rendering the franchise center so much larger than life that alligators in the Everglades might be able to size him up.
Whether he shakes Bryant's hand before tip-off, whether Miami hands the Lakers their third consecutive loss tonight, O'Neal already has come out ahead by almost any measure against his former teammate.
After winning its 10th consecutive game Tuesday night, O'Neal's team became the first in the NBA to clinch a playoff berth. The Heat is in position to win its first championship since entering the league 16 years ago, and attendance is up by more than 30 percent.
Bryant, meanwhile, has found the going tougher than expected. The Lakers entered Wednesday with a 32-31 record and trailing the Denver Nuggets by a half-game for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
If the Lakers can't figure themselves out over the next month, they could end up out of the playoffs for the first time since 1994. The ultimate indignity would come if the draft lottery took place during halftime of a Heat playoff game featuring O'Neal.
"It's just a matter of how to get it done,' Bryant said. "We're a young team. We've been inconsistent all year long. We put in a new system in the middle of the season. Guys are still trying to grasp it. Some nights we look great at it, other nights we look terrible at it.
"It's just a matter of us kind of feeling our way through it, trying to get that consistent rhythm where we're playing good basketball with 19 games left. Hopefully, we can do it pretty quickly.'
Both teams took the day off Wednesday after playing games on back-to-back nights. That didn't stop O'Neal from getting in one last dig at Bryant as he appeared during the day at a news conference put on by Wheaties.
O'Neal, in keeping with the theme, was asked if he ate his Wheaties and Bryant ate his Wheaties, who would come out ahead tonight.
"I'm not familiar with that other name used,' said O'Neal, who did not shake hands with Bryant before tip-off at the All-Star Game.
For his part, Bryant said of facing O'Neal: "I really don't have that much to say about it. It's nothing to me. I don't really care about that situation over there. I don't really care what they say or what he may say. I really don't care.
"What I have to focus on is making sure that we believe in ourselves and we try to fight as much as possible to get into the playoffs. All that other stuff that goes on is irrelevant.'
The first time Bryant and O'Neal played, the Heat won in overtime, 104-102, at Staples Center. O'Neal fouled out, but wound up with the last laugh. Bryant scored 42 points and took 30 shots, but he also missed a 3-pointer that could have won the game.
It turned out to be the NBA's highest-rated, regular-season broadcast in almost seven years. Tonight's game will compete against the opening day of the NCAA Tournament and could be overshadowed by congressional hearings into steroid use in baseball.
The Lakers are coming off back- to-back losses to Washington and Philadelphia, and were outplayed in both games. Interim coach Frank Hamblen was asked Tuesday about heading to Miami and said, "It doesn't bode well for us, does it?'
"We're just not playing the right way right now,' added Lamar Odom, one of three former Heat players acquired in the O'Neal trade in July. "Offensively, defensively, we've got to clean everything up. The Miami game will be a good game to do that.
"No team is unbeatable. This would be a good time to get down there and shock everybody and get one before we go to Indiana. If not, then just playing the right way, it's important.'
O'Neal said Tuesday in New York that he was getting the same feeling about the Heat as he did with the 2000-01 Lakers, who went 15-1 in the playoffs on their way to capturing a second consecutive championship.
"I enjoy the fact that I'm playing with a bunch of guys that play the game the way it's supposed to be played,' O'Neal added earlier this week. "This is the first time where I could say I've been on a good team where everybody was on the same page.'
The plans already are being laid for O'Neal to opt out of the last year of his contract this summer, then sign a four-extension extension with the Heat. That would keep him in South Florida through the 2008-09 season.
O'Neal's agent, Perry Rogers, told the Miami Herald: "There is an absolute love affair between Miami and Shaq. Why would (he) not want to finish his career here?'
Bryant and the Lakers will learn the depth of that feeling tonight, in what could be as close to a playoff game as they come.
"I've got five beautiful children, a wife, I'm living a great life,' O'Neal said. "I live on the water. If you had that view ... nothing left to complain about.'