Payton, Heat burn Lakers

Veteran guard, 37, scores 21 off bench, helps cool off Bryant

Heat 97 Lakers 92


MIAMI -- Gary Payton seemed to resent the amount of attention being focused on Miami Heat teammates Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, as well as on Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, going into yesterday's nationally televised game at AmericanAirlines Arena.

"It ain't about them, it's about the Heat and the Lakers," Payton had said after practice one afternoon last week.

Being shunted off as some bit player in this much-hyped Christmas Day showcase, the former All-Star guard showed that he still had some game, and swagger, left in his 37-year-old body by scoring 21 points off the bench and leading the Heat to a 97-92 victory.

Payton was 9-for-11 from the field - his best shooting game in nearly a decade - to help offset cold shooting for O'Neal (8-for-18) and Wade (5-for-15). Both of Miami's All-Stars finished with 18 points, while O'Neal contributed 17 rebounds.

"I've had great games, I've had marvelous games, so this is really nothing to me," said Payton, who is playing in his 16th NBA season.

Though Payton didn't outscore Bryant, who finished with a game-high 37 points, a player whose defense led to his nickname - The Glove - was a factor in helping cool off the NBA's second-leading scorer and enabling the Heat to avoid blowing a double-digit lead for the second straight game.

"It was a little bit of back-to-the-future stuff for Gary," said Heat coach Pat Riley, who, in his role as team president, brought Payton to Miami last summer as a free agent.

Payton contributed to Bryant's 12-for-30 shooting (including 0-for-8 from three-point range), particularly because Wade picked up his fourth foul 55 seconds into the third quarter when, after taking an elbow to the face from Bryant, Wade retaliated with one of his own to Bryant's ribs.

With Wade on the bench for the remainder of the quarter, Payton helped slow Bryant, who had scored 24 points in the first half. And after watching what had been a 14-point lead for Miami turn into a five-point deficit in the third quarter, Payton helped the Heat come back and provided a critical basket.

When the Lakers took a 92-91 lead on a free throw by Lamar Odom with 1:29 remaining, it was Payton who hit the biggest shot of the game, a three-pointer from the deep left corner 14 seconds later to give Miami the lead for good. It came after O'Neal had retrieved a missed three-pointer by Heat forward James Posey.

"We couldn't stop their second-chance points down the stretch," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whose 15-12 team lost for only the third time in 12 games. "I thought we had a good shot of winning the game. Gary Payton was instrumental in the Heat's win today. He was the difference in the game."

Right down to the end. After Wade slightly opened the door by missing one of two free throws with 12.1 seconds left with the Heat hanging onto a 95-92 lead, the Lakers went to Bryant, who tried to use a screen by Odom to break free from Payton. With Payton in the vicinity, Bryant's 25-footer barely made the rim.

Though the game began with a noticeable silence between O'Neal and Bryant - O'Neal walked right past a stretching Bryant before the opening tip-and included a brief confrontation between Bryant and Wade, it ended with Payton jawing with Odom.

There was no contact between the players, who were pulled away by the referees, and nothing but respect from Bryant.

"He had a great game," Bryant said of Payton, who played with the Lakers in 2003-04. "He did exactly what they brought him here for. He made timely baskets. Gary's been a heck of a defender his entire career. He actually taught me how to play defense. I wasn't surprised at all."

Neither was Riley.

"We didn't bring him here on a gurney," Riley said after the game. "This is not a quick trip to South Beach for fun in the sun. He still has the ability to make some big plays."

Since Riley returned to coach the Heat (16-12) two weeks ago, Payton has played a more significant role than he did under Stan Van Gundy. Part of it was based on a knee injury to starting point guard Jason Williams, but it was also that Payton is more comfortable in Riley's up-tempo offense.

"That's my game, just getting out in the open court, creating plays and doing things," Payton said.

For one afternoon, Payton was no longer a bit player sharing a stage with the game's stars.

He was recreating an old part, one that led Payton to being named first-team All-NBA in defense for eight consecutive years, the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 1996, and either a first, second or third team All-Star seven times in his career.

"He was," O'Neal said, "`The Glove' of old."

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