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ON THE NBA

Shaq vs. Kobe, the next stage

With O'Neal in Phoenix, they'll be seeing a lot more of each other, keeping the rivalry alive.

November 16, 2008|MARK HEISLER | Heisler is a Times staff writer.

Guess who's coming to dinner.

If a Lakers Spectre rises over the West, lots of people saw it coming, including the Phoenix Suns, who blew themselves up in advance.

Junking the offense no one could guard but which was comprised of Munchkins, the Suns acquired Shaquille O'Neal, who's still a 7-footer, even at 36.

It was a bombshell that still reverberates and Shaq's Suns haven't even played Kobe Bryant's Lakers yet this season.

That will end Thursday with the Lakers in Phoenix, so please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position.

SHAQ AND KOBE IN YET ANOTHER DIMENSION!

Actually, if you want to call what they had a feud, it ended years ago.

Nevertheless, speaking for the people who count hits on our website and welcome any development that puts "Shaq and Kobe" in a headline, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Once Lakers teammates, once separated by a continent with O'Neal in Miami (but together every Christmas, courtesy of ABC), Shaq and Kobe are now Pacific Division rivals who meet four times this season (all nationally televised.)

Neither bitter enemies nor close friends -- but to all appearances, now totally cool with each other -- they may not be joined at the hip, but their destinies are.

Whatever it takes to bring them together, whether it was fate or an accident of history, it just happened again.

A year ago at this time, the Lakers had already popped up on the Suns' radar, blasting them, 119-98, in the season's second game in Phoenix.

Andrew Bynum, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds off the bench, then dropped 28 and12 on the Suns in the Lakers' Christmas romp. Coach Mike D'Antoni, asked if Andrew was up-and-coming, said, laughing, "He's there. . . . I hope he's not up and coming."

On Feb. 1 with Bynum out, the Lakers got Pau Gasol. The entire West gulped, but no one more than the Suns.

"The West is so big and we were 6-foot-10 and 6-7 at center and power forward," Steve Nash said last week. "We had a hard time with some of these teams. The Lakers have a 7-footer [Lamar Odom] at small forward."

Actually, the Suns were 6-8 1/2 at center (Amare Stoudemire's height in bare feet at the 2002 pre-draft camp) and 6-6 1/2 at power forward (Shawn Marion's height at the 1999 camp) so if Odom is only 6-10, it's still sobering.

Within days of the Gasol trade, Miami owner Mickey Arison offered O'Neal to Phoenix owner Bob Sarver, who took it to President Steve Kerr, all atwitter.

Kerr spent hours watching video of O'Neal, who was out of shape and looked awful, but took it to D'Antoni. In a surprise, D'Antoni, the father of their open offense, loved it.

Of course, a lot was going on. D'Antoni had run the basketball operation until that season, didn't like having someone over him and was already thinking of leaving.

D'Antoni could have been completely sincere, it could have been totally unconscious, but "What do we have to lose?" was no longer exactly the same as "What do I have to lose?"

In any case, O'Neal is definitely there.

With Terry Porter succeeding D'Antoni, the Suns no longer spread the floor and give the ball to Nash, once as dominant as any player in the game, now at a six-year low in assists (7.4) and a nine-year low in scoring (13.3).

Now everyone in Phoenix wants to know if they couldn't just turn it up a tad?

"It's difficult to be like, 'Well, we still want to run,' when we're not really emphasizing that," Nash said.

"Hopefully we can find that balance to some extent, because when Shaq's not on the floor, we are not a team that's built for half-court basketball."

More than the balance of power has shifted.

Everything was always stacked in O'Neal's favor, with the Lakers, where he was -- and should have been -- the man, and in Miami, where he joined Dwyane Wade and won a fourth title.

Bryant was always regarded as O'Neal's junior partner. When Shaq left, Kobe was left to take the rap for the breakup all by himself.

Now Shaq is past his prime and Kobe smack dab in the middle of his, the reigning MVP with the stronger team.

Once O'Neal could say anything about Bryant. Last summer when O'Neal was caught on video leveling a tasteless broadside at Bryant in a freestyle rap, it didn't reflect badly on Kobe but Shaq, who quickly apologized.

Actually, O'Neal now insists there never was a feud and there's still no force on Earth that can deflect Shaq from a conclusion he has selected

"We never had a problem," O'Neal told the Sacramento Bee's Scott Howard-Cooper. "We never had a problem. I swear to God. On the court, we never had a problem."

"Don't even say that," said Howard-Cooper, a former Lakers beat writer for The Times. "Don't even try."

"I think it was all designed by Phil [Jackson]," O'Neal said, "because if you think about it, Phil never called us into the office and said, 'Both of you all, shut . . . up.' "

Happily, if the feud's over, or never existed, the rivalry lives on. Shaq and Kobe, forever.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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