Shaq keeps Kobe feud alive
There can only be one conclusion, then.
It's Shaq-A-Claus, as he likes to call himself come holiday season, who won't let the drama die.
It's Shaquille O'Neal, as much as anyone in the trouble-making press corps, who invites endless focus on basketball's favorite soap opera, even though the stars parted long ago.
After all ...
The hype machine doesn't have to grind too hard when Shaq slaps Cook's hand, walks right past Bryant, turns his back to No. 8 and then slaps an unsuspecting Cook on the wrist again, as if to slam-dunk the snub.
You know what that means.
Next Christmas, chances are we'll be staring at a third successive Lakers-Heat center jump and scrambling to count up the handshakes.
Kobe, for one, has been trying to get us talking about other stuff. He hung a beyond-words 62 points on Dallas in just three quarters Tuesday night and led the Lakers to a wholly unexpected 10-3 start in December, but he also wound up spending most of the week trying to diffuse the inevitable flurry of Shaq questions.
"I think people should just leave it the hell alone," Kobe suggested on Christmas Eve. "Move on."
Then came the game and another tension-filled tipoff, which pretty much guarantees that there will be no moving on.
Before each of their regular-season meetings last season, Kobe tried to initiate some interaction with The Diesel, leading to one chilly half-embrace at Staples Center last Christmas and an airballed fist tap both helped botch in the March rematch in Miami.
This time, perhaps sensing the forthcoming brush-off, Bryant didn't even try to connect, making him an accessory to the spectacle.
Yet it was O'Neal, in his winners' interview with ABC's Lisa Salters, who responded to two questions about the opening tip with two blank stares, until he finally signed off by saying: "Merry Christmas everybody out there." Pat Riley's and Phil Jackson's own history of sniping might have dominated the buildup to Sunday's reunion, but Shaq's silence quickly obscured the unretired coaches and the Riley-Jackson handshake seen during warm-ups.
The good news? The actual game, just like last December's, proved to be better theater than expected, which isn't easy given how rarely Shaq and Kobe intersect during live play. It also managed somehow to be a far better game than the day's opening act, featuring powerhouses San Antonio and Detroit, even though a weary Bryant (37 points, 0-for-8 on 3-pointers) faded at the end and in spite of foul trouble that shackled Dwyane Wade, whose elbow exchange with Kobe made this the second straight game Shaq's current and former sidekicks have tangled.
Gary Payton stepped into the void with his best game as a Heater: 21 points and some sticky defense on Bryant when Wade and James Posey couldn't keep up. The Lakers' Cook was another surprise, with a third-quarter burst of 11 points that helped L.A. set up a meaningful finish.
The difference for Miami, besides Payton, came late and came inside. Two crunch-time offensive boards by Shaq -- both dismissed as push-offs by a protesting Jackson -- resulted in a game-turning five points. O'Neal converted a quick lay-in from the first rebound, then kicked the second to Payton for a killer 3-pointer in the corner.
An uncharacteristic six errant free throws by Bryant didn't hurt the hosts, either, but it would have been monumentally different if those misses -- or, say, Kwame Brown's blown layup late in the third that cost L.A. a six-point lead and stifled its momentum -- were the subjects of post-game inquiry.
Thanks to Shaq, no chance.
"Guys, you just need to get off this," Bryant implored reporters afterward, when asked about the frosty opening tip. "I mean, seriously."
We'll try. Or at least I resolve to try, even knowing that all of the above will be dredged up again soon before Round 4 at Staples on Jan. 16.
I have to ask, though.
If Shaq's not off it, how can we be?
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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