SEATTLE — Change one word on the hype-machine marquee, and the whole league shudders a bit.
From: Shaq versus Kobe, a tragedy-in-the-making.
To: Shaq and Kobe, a duo to dread.
On Sunday, the Lakers gave a reprise of what they used to be--and how much better they can get--with the bash-and-flash combination of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant overrunning the Seattle SuperSonics in a 91-84 victory at KeyArena.
Is this how the Lakers regain their playoff vigor after their recent April swoon?
"Shaq, you can line them up," Bryant told O'Neal at one point, "and I'll shoot them down."
So much ink and talk-show time has been sacrificed to try to explain Bryant and O'Neal's sometimes-strained relationship, and predict their distant futures, that a final frustrating end to it had almost been assumed in some parts.
But on the basketball floor, on this day, against a SuperSonic team trying to claw its way into the playoffs, it was a convergence of dominance that, coupled with the Lakers' second consecutive intense defensive effort, gave L.A. its second consecutive significant victory and lit a beacon of postseason possibilities.
The Lakers (29-19), who will open the playoffs matched against Houston, are battling the Rockets for home-court advantage and currently hold the edge.
Meanwhile, the loss pushed the Seattle to the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
"First half, I had my way," said O'Neal, who finished with a game-high 33 points and 12 rebounds. "Third quarter, guys were looking out for Kobe, we kept going to him.
"We're going to have to use our weapons until they're not working. . . . We played good defense and we played good team ball and we're developing that momentum we're going to need going into the playoffs."
O'Neal spent the first half splattering SuperSonic defenders for 21 points, and Bryant took it from there, using the third quarter as his concerto.
In that 12-minute span, Bryant made nine of 10 shots, outscored Seattle, 13-0, in one 4:30 stretch, and personally gave the Lakers a 62-50 lead with 4:25 left in the quarter.
The performance was an echo of Bryant's 33-point second-half eruption in Orlando on March 21.
"I just took my time," said Bryant, who outscored Seattle by himself, 19-13, in the third quarter, and finished with 28 points. "I caught the ball, I noticed they were just backing off of me. So why not shoot it?
"Kind of had an Orlando flashback a little bit."
The Lakers, who had lost five of six road games before Sunday, had plenty of signs of positive play:
Seattle made only 37.5% of its shots from the field (including only four of 21 from three-point range); there were only 10 Laker turnovers, and point guard Derek Fisher provided solid distribution and defense.
But for O'Neal--who made 14 of 17 free throws against Portland Wednesday to lift his season percentage to 53.8--the day was dampened some by his nine-of-20 performance from the line, including a five-of-10 run in the final minutes when Seattle was intentionally fouling him to stop the clock.
"You guys probably don't believe this, but I sit around the house and wait for situations like that," said O'Neal, who is getting noticeably more arc on the attempts and bending his knees at least slightly. "Especially with me being 50% at the line.
"I have a dream of that, my team down by one, they foul me and put me on the line. I've been waiting for that since my second year in the league.
"I'm not going to miss any more down the stretch--not that many, anyway. I always make one. I'm going to start making two at a time. I ain't missing no more."
With two games left in the season and the first round of the playoffs against Houston around the corner, are the Lakers back on track?
"Until we're winning every game by 20, will I ever say I'm satisfied with how we're playing?" Coach Kurt Rambis said. "In my mind, there's always room for improvement.
"We did an awful lot of good things today. We still made some mistakes. Some mental, some physical. But just based on what we did defensively, I'm very happy."