Payton scores 21, Shaq pulls down 17 boards as Miami tops L.A.

MIAMI (AP) -- Gary Payton distances himself from what he calls
"the Shaq-Kobe nonsense," saying he stays neutral because he's
friendly with both players.

Choosing sides on the court, well, that's another matter --
because Shaquille O'Neal is clearly Payton's favorite there.

Payton tied a season-high with 21 points, including the go-ahead
3-pointer off O'Neal's assist with 1:05 left as Miami beat the Los
Angeles Lakers 97-92 on Sunday, the Heat's second straight
Christmas triumph over Kobe Bryant's team.

"I'm proud that the Miami Heat won. I've been in the league too
long for me to be proud of anything right now," said Payton, who
got a hug from Bryant after the game. "I've had great games. I've
had marvelous games. So this is really not [anything] to me. We've
still got a lot of games. We're still trying to build."

Bryant, who missed a 3-pointer at the end of the Lakers' 104-102
loss to Miami last Christmas, missed a potentially tiebreaking one
from behind the arc in the final seconds -- sealing the Lakers'
fourth consecutive Christmas defeat.

With Payton hounding him for much of the second half, Bryant
finished with 37 points on 12-of-30 shooting, including an 0-for-8
effort from 3-point range.

"Gary's been a hell of a defender his entire career," Bryant
said. "He taught me how to play defense."

O'Neal had 18 points and 17 rebounds, while Dwyane Wade added 18
points for the Heat. Brian Cook had 15 points and Lamar Odom had 14
points and 16 rebounds for the Lakers, who lost for the third time
in their last 12 games.

Payton spent the 2003-04 season with the Lakers, the year they
lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals -- and the last year that O'Neal
and Bryant were teammates. He went there because he thought O'Neal
could help him win an elusive first title, and signed a one-year
deal with Miami to continue that pursuit.

"We didn't bring him here on a gurney," Heat coach Pat Riley
said. "This is not a quick trip to South Beach. He still has the
ability to make some big plays, and at the same time he did a great
job defending Kobe."

Most of the sellout crowd wore red shirts, some donned Santa
hats and banged candy-cane-striped noisemakers. There was some
holiday cheer, of course: Lakers coach Phil Jackson strode to the
Heat bench a few minutes before tip-off, shook hands with Riley,
his longtime rival, then shared a quick hug with O'Neal -- who
teamed with Jackson to win three championships with the Lakers.

But the O'Neal-Bryant relationship seemed frostier than ever.

The duo wouldn't acknowledge or look at each other before the
game, not shaking hands like last year before the Christmas tip-off
in Los Angeles. Their first contact was 23 seconds in, when O'Neal
fouled Bryant while setting a pick for Wade and drew big cheers
when Bryant tumbled to the floor.

After the game, O'Neal didn't want to talk about Bryant.

"It was just another game to me," O'Neal said. "It'll come
back around in about 15 more, because we go back out there in
January and it'll be the same old stuff again."

The third Shaq-Kobe matchup was ultra-hyped, with some
ticketholders spending more than $1,000 to get in. They saw a good
one, not decided until the very end.

Miami led 80-72 on Payton's layup with 9:21 left, but the Lakers
answered with a 13-5 run that ended with Bryant hitting a jumper
with 3:38 remaining for an 85-83 lead.

The lead changed hands four times in the next 90 seconds -- twice
on 3-pointers by Devean George, the last putting Los Angeles up
91-89. Until those two makes, the Lakers were 1-for-17 from behind
the arc.

"We had the opportunity down the stretch," Bryant said. "That
being said, we still played like crap."

O'Neal grabbed an offensive rebound and tied the game at 91 with
1:49 left, before the Lakers took their last lead on a free throw
by Odom 20 seconds later. Payton followed with his critical
3-pointer from the corner, before Wade and James Posey added three
free throws in the final 12.1 seconds.

"Gary Payton was instrumental. ... He was the difference in the
game," Jackson said.

And that went deeper than just the boxscore. Payton and Odom
spent a good portion of the game jawing at one another, with Odom
saying afterward that the Heat guard's mouth "is horrible and
atrocious." The two exchanged more words shortly after the final
buzzer before retreating to their locker rooms.

"That's just the way he is," said Odom, adding that his
5-for-12 night had nothing to do with Payton. "He's always been
that way."

It clearly was an event, with Donald Trump and his wife Melania
sitting at midcourt, four seats to the left of New York Yankees
third baseman Alex Rodriguez. The rest of the star list was
diverse: celebs from Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino to rapper
Trick Daddy dotted the stands.

The Heat led 31-26 after one quarter, aided by a 9-0 run in a
82-second span. Bryant had 16 points in the first quarter,
including a three-point play off an alley-oop dunk with 37.8
seconds left. But with him on the bench to open the second, Miami
outscored the Lakers 8-2 and eventually led by 14 with 3:39 left in
the half.

Yet just as they did Friday in a loss to the Nets, the Heat
frittered away their big early lead. Bryant had six of the Lakers'
points in a 13-4 run to close the half, drawing them within 53-48
at intermission.

And in the third, with Wade on the bench one minute in after
being called for a flagrant foul against Bryant -- his fourth
personal of the game -- Miami's offense sputtered. The Heat managed
only two field goals in the first 7:57 of the third, yet never
trailed by more than five points during that drought.

Brian Cook's 3-pointer with 1:59 left in the period -- the
Lakers' first in 14 tries to that point -- gave his team a 70-65
lead, but Miami scored the final five points of the quarter and
tied it at 70.

"It's great to win against probably the hottest team in the
NBA," Wade said. "The game was very competitive and no one was
going to back down from anyone."

Game Notes
Miami is 2-1 on Christmas Day. Before winning in Los
Angeles last year, the Heat lost to Jackson and the Chicago Bulls
90-80 on the road in 1997. ... With 18 points Sunday, O'Neal passed
Charles Barkley into 15th place on the NBA's career scoring list
with 23,767 points. O'Neal also made two free throws, giving him
4,960 in his career and tying Magic Johnson for 25th on the NBA's
all-time list.