MIAMI — A report in the New York Times this weekend said Shaquille O'Neal and teammates alternately freeze out or overfeed Kobe Bryant based on a system of hand signals from O'Neal.
The source was an unnamed Western Conference player.
"Of course I deny it," O'Neal said Monday afternoon.
One Laker said there are occasions when players redirect the offense from Bryant's outside game to O'Neal on the inside, but said claims of prearranged hand signals to play around Bryant are grossly exaggerated.
Accounts of a Bryant freeze-out might be more believable if he wasn't taking 23.2 shots a game, the most in the NBA.
While no one in the organization denies the rift that widens and narrows based on the most recent game result, neither Laker management nor players fret over the relationship. It is what it is, they say. They worked through it last season. Most assume they will, eventually, again.
Never one to duck issues of shot quality or quantity, particularly when it comes to Bryant, Coach Phil Jackson instead seemed enthused by the recent work of O'Neal and Bryant, together averaging more than 50 points a game.
"It's gotten a lot better," he said. "They're probably going to be one of the most dynamic one-two punches in the game as the year goes on, that this game has ever seen. It creates a rather interesting duet. At times they're singing on key with a full orchestra behind them. Sometimes they're singing off-key a cappella. As a result, our fourth-quarter finishes haven't been as good as they should be on the road."
More scrutiny has come this season for two reasons: They won a championship together and Bryant is taking more shots and scoring more points than O'Neal, last season's league most valuable player.
"I'm not uncomfortable at all with that," Jackson said. "I think if it's comparable, I don't have any problem with that. Shaq's going to shoot 60%, Kobe's going to shoot 40%, so it balances out very well. And then he gets to the line and Kobe will make all of his free throws and Shaq will miss most of his. Then, if it gets balanced out in the field-goal department, then we have a pretty good duo there. It's teeter-totter.
"[Bryant] has his games up and down. Last week [when he shot eight for 31 against Milwaukee], he had a game where he felt he never got control of it, he kept searching for it and he could never quite find it. Ultimately it ended up being a rather ragged shooting night for him and for us. And we lost the ballgame on top of it. After that game, it's been like he has stood in the back of the classroom and had the dunce hat on his head. He came back quite well in the last three games."
When it was announced that Alonzo Mourning had a serious kidney ailment and that he would miss the season, Jackson said he telephoned Heat Coach Pat Riley.
The assumption was that Jackson could empathize with Riley, given that Jackson once had to make do without a superstar for a time.
"It never got through to him," Jackson said of the call.
In a playful mood, which explained his choice of plaid pants for Monday's practice, Jackson at first mocked a question about him feeling sorry for Riley and the situation.
"Yeah, if he felt for me when Michael Jordan quit a day before training camp started, I feel for Pat," Jackson said. "He won the Eastern [Conference] that year because of it."
But, coach, you know, the retooling Riley had to do . . .
"How 'bout the way I had to retool when Michael went to play baseball for two years?" he asked, grinning.
Yeah, probably no calls from Riley then.
at Miami, 5 PST
Channel 9, TBS
* Site--American Airlines Arena.
* Radio--KLAC (570).
* Records--Lakers 17-9, Heat 13-13.
* Record vs. Heat (1999-2000)--2-0.
* Update--It has been three weeks since Miami beat a team with a winning record. At the same time, the Heat has defeated all of the bad teams. It's one way to make the playoffs, even without Mourning. Former Laker Eddie Jones (18.8 points) leads four Heat players scoring in double figures.