Teams' star power shines spotlight on Heat-Lakers

`Big game, it's Christmas Day, it's Shaq, Kobe, Phil and all that stuff'

Pro basketball


MIAMI -- Leave it to the world's largest huckster, Shaquille O'Neal, to hype today's game between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers at AmericanAirlines Arena.

"I'd like to see it be the most highly watched game in NBA history," O'Neal said. "When I get old, I'll tell my kids, `I played in a game when 700 million people watched.'"

O'Neal might be exaggerating a little bit - well, a lot - but that doesn't deter from the truth: It doesn't matter that the Heat (15-12) and Lakers (15-11) aren't close to today's other matchup, the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs, in terms of record, because they are overloaded with star power.

It is a game stuffed with story lines and filled with intriguing matchups, on the court as well as on the opposing benches. One year to the day after O'Neal faced Kobe Bryant at Staples Center with tepid pre-game fist pumps and a couple of hard fouls later on, the contemptuous relationship between these two All-Stars is only part of the equation.

This season's return of championship coaches Pat Riley to the Heat and Phil Jackson to the Lakers has ratcheted up the interest in this interconference rivalry.

"It's a big game, it's Christmas Day, it's Shaq, Kobe, Phil and all that stuff," Riley said last week.

Riley said that whatever bad blood flowed between him and Jackson during their years of meeting in heated Eastern Conference playoff games between the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls is long in the past.

"I don't look at it and make it personal," Riley said. "To me, he's been with the Lakers. He's been there every year but the last one. I can't even remember him walking the sidelines with Chicago."

That Heat-Lakers is being billed as the main event on ABC's Christmas Day doubleheader, with the Spurs (21-6) and Pistons (21-3) serving as the opening act at 12:30 p.m., wasn't that surprising to the coach who once orchestrated the Lakers to four NBA championships with a style called "Showtime."

"That's ridiculous, because they deserve to be the marquee game, but that's not what television and newspaper reporting is all about," Riley said. "That's just the way it is."

Said Bryant, whose team beat Orlando on Friday, 104-88, for its ninth win in the past 11 games, "That's probably a better game."

Though some of the buzz was muted by Miami's 95-88 loss to the New Jersey Nets in Miami on Friday night -the Heat's second defeat in six games since Riley replaced his former assistant, Stan Van Gundy, as head coach - that should change once the teams take the court today.

If last year's matchup focused on what O'Neal and Bryant would do once they played each other, this season's first meeting is more about the growing rivalry between Bryant, the league's second-leading scorer at 32.1 points a game, and Miami's Dwyane Wade, No. 6 at 26.3 points a game.

Now in his 10th NBA season, it's Bryant, 27, who is looking to fend off the challenge of Wade, 23, just as others had to do when Bryant was trying to prove he was one of the best players in the league.

"I think Dwyane has that same type of DNA that I have as far as attack and deny, not backing down from a challenge," Bryant said. "I can relate to that."

Said Wade: "For me, our matchups have gone fine, because I'm 2-0 [since O'Neal joined the Heat]. Kobe is an unbelievable player. He's been doing it in this league for a while, I'm just starting to come up now. I think it's the games rather than the individual parts that are most important to me."

Most of the Heat players, O'Neal included, took notice of Bryant's 62-point binge Tuesday night in three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks, including breaking his team record with 30 points in the third quarter.

"It was one of those days he got on a roll, he got hot, he shot the ball pretty good, 18-for-31," O'Neal said. "Congratulations."

Asked if he thought Bryant was sending a message, O'Neal said: "I don't have a fax machine, so I didn't get that message."

If anything, O'Neal has more issues these days with Lakers owner Jerry Buss than he does with Bryant. Buss said recently that he again would make the trade that sent O'Neal here before last season for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future draft pick.

Asked why he thought Buss made the comment, O'Neal said: "Because he misses me. It's like an old girlfriend. When you break up with me, you feel that more than I do. You miss me more than I do. When you leave me, it's your loss. Look it up."

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