Kobe versus Shaq, Part IVYes, I know that Kobe and Shaq don't guard each other but all of the pregame hype about the Lakers-Heat game on Thursday night focused squarely on the former teammates and their much discussed relationship. Shaquille O'Neal's Miami Heat won the first three times that they played Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers after the trade that sent Shaq to Miami--but part four was different right from the start. Shaq made a point of approaching Kobe while Kobe was doing his pre-game stretching and the two shook hands; they shook hands again and embraced at the midcourt pregame captains' meeting. TNT's Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley made a big deal about how Shaq proved to be the "bigger man" by burying the hatchet with Kobe but I see things a little differently. I agree with their assertion that this sets a good example for Shaq and Kobe's young admirers about putting aside one's differences and that Martin Luther King Day is certainly a fitting time to do so--but why give Shaq more credit than Kobe? After all, Shaq is the one who went out of his way to perpetuate the public feud, refusing to even go to the captains' meeting for the Christmas Day game, pointedly ignoring Kobe's attempt to greet him before tip-off and not even mentioning Kobe by name when referring to him during interviews with reporters. Anyway, the real feud is not Shaq and Kobe--it is Shaq and Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner who did not want to extend Shaq's contract at the maximum salary. Is Shaq going to mend fences with Buss, who Shaq has publicly blasted more than once? In any case, it is good that Shaq has abandoned his childish behavior towards Kobe and maybe now we can all place the focus where it belongs--on the game itself.
Speaking of the game, the Lakers beat the Heat 100-92. It is important to remember that this was the last game of the Heat's longest road trip of the season and that Shaq is still recovering from his ankle injury. Nevertheless, if you looked at these two teams without knowing all of the history involved, would you believe that the Heat are the supposed title contenders and the Lakers were thought by many to not even be a playoff caliber team? The Heat are in first place in the weak Southeast Division (the second place Washington Wizards are 17-19) but their record is barely better than the Lakers: 23-16 compared to 21-17. Kobe scored 37 points on 13-24 field goal shooting and 9-9 free throw shooting and had 12 of those points in the fourth quarter--which is actually a fairly typical game for him, since he leads the league in scoring average and in fourth quarter scoring. Shaq had 18 points on 8-14 field goal shooting and 2-8 free throw shooting, adding 10 rebounds and no blocked shots, also a fairly typical game for him this season. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Shaq trade is supposed to pay short term dividends for the Heat while the Lakers expect to improve over the long haul but it is pretty easy to make a case that Kobe is a better player than Shaq right now. Look at the two rosters--if Shaq and Kobe were swapped straight up for each other, which team would benefit? TNT analysts Doug Collins and Steve Kerr mentioned that if Kobe and the Lakers continue to play the way that they have recently that Kobe will deserve serious MVP consideration. With every day that passes it becomes more obvious that the Lakers made the right choice in deciding to build around Kobe; perhaps Shaq would have been wiser to accept less money to continue to play alongside him, because it looks less and less likely that he will win a championship in Miami.
A very encouraging sign for the Lakers is that the team does not completely fall apart when Kobe is out of the game, something that was definitely a problem earlier in the year. The triangle offense no longer looks like the Bermuda Triangle; players are passing and cutting and creating open shots with much more crispness than even a month ago. The Lakers team defense is markedly better than it was last season. I concluded my December 15, 2005 post titled "The Wild, Wild West" with these words: "Don't be surprised if by the All-Star break both the Lakers and the Rockets have better records than Golden State." The Lakers have already passed the Warriors in the standings with several weeks to go before the All-Star Game and they are closing in on the slumping L.A. Clippers (Houston has been sinking fast with Yao still sidelined and McGrady succumbing to another back injury). The Lakers are only four games behind the Phoenix Suns in the race for the Pacific Division crown, which would move them up to the second seed in the West and likely enable them to avoid facing the defending champion San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 AM