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Center stage -- again

The already heated Lakers-Suns rivalry took on new dimension with O'Neal's move to Phoenix last season

November 20, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Bresnahan is a Times staff writer.

Not long ago, the Lakers and Phoenix Suns could have played an entire 82-game season against each other without a steep drop in entertainment value.

There was Mike D'Antoni vs. Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant vs. Raja Bell and that riveting seven-game playoff series in 2006.

There were suspensions from flagrant fouls, insults directed at the Lakers in a book, and, wait a sec . . . this thing could still be entertaining when they play tonight in Phoenix.

Indeed, D'Antoni is now coaching in New York and the Lakers have passed the Suns in Western Conference relevance, but there's the presence of that one guy who makes Lakers-Suns games amusing again.

Shaquille O'Neal arrived on the Suns' doorstep back in February, failing to help Phoenix advance past the first round of the playoffs but, in the smaller scheme of things, he added a new wrinkle to the Suns-Lakers rivalry.

In fact, O'Neal strolled down an interesting version of memory lane in an interview last week with a former Lakers beat writer who now works for the Sacramento Bee.

O'Neal claimed he never really had a problem with Bryant and blamed Jackson for all the conflict on the championship-winning Lakers teams earlier this decade. O'Neal also didn't swat away a question about whether he'd return to the Lakers as a free agent in 2010 as Andrew Bynum's backup ("I don't like to think that far ahead, but anything could happen," he said).

Of course, O'Neal will be 38 by that time, and he might not have a huge supporter if Jackson is still the coach.

The last few days, Jackson found himself answering to O'Neal's latest views on the Bryant conflict.

The Lakers coach also launched a mild rebuttal to O'Neal's assertion that "it was all designed by Phil, because if you think about it, Phil never called us into the office and said, 'Both of you all, shut . . . up.' "

Said Jackson on Tuesday: "I think we did one time. It was maybe after the first championship. It was just about, 'We're about winning, right?' "

In an unpredictably weird twist, the Suns center on Wednesday denied he criticized Jackson.

"America, don't always believe what you read," O'Neal told reporters in Phoenix.

"It just wouldn't be right to say that now, 10 years later. On the record, Phil has always done right by me. Great guy, he always took care of me. We won championships and it would be idiotic of me to say something bad about him now."

O'Neal also added his latest take on Bryant, going against the historically backed belief that they feuded.

O'Neal said Wednesday he and Bryant could have won "probably eight" championships together and that they "never had a bad relationship."

"If I see him and his family in a restaurant, it's, 'Hello Mr. Bryant, hello Ms. Bryant, hello little babies . . . ' " O'Neal said.

O'Neal's musings from last week didn't draw any eye-opening reactions from the Lakers.

Bryant clammed up, comparing himself to Tiger Woods' bland approach with the media and saying, "You're not going to get anything out of me but plain vanilla."

Derek Fisher simply tilted his head back and laughed loudly when the subject of O'Neal someday returning to the Lakers was brought up. (Fisher and O'Neal are still friends.)

Meanwhile, the Suns (8-4) aren't quite as fun to watch with Terry Porter taking over for D'Antoni. Their free-for-all on offense has been scrapped for a more traditional approach, in case the statistics don't spell it out.

The Suns are down from last season's 110 points a game to 100.5. Steve Nash is averaging 7.5 assists a game, well off last season's average of 11.1. O'Neal, for his part, is averaging 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds in what would be a career-low 26.7 minutes a game.

Still, TNT wasn't afraid to send an e-mail to writers and broadcasters with the headline, "TNT Thursday features Kobe vs. Shaq . . . "

There's also that other potential rivalry involving O'Neal, though, surprisingly, O'Neal and Bynum have logged only two minutes against each other since Bynum was drafted in 2005.

Bynum was hurt last season when the Lakers faced the Suns with O'Neal and Miami. O'Neal was hurt when the Lakers faced Miami two seasons ago.

The video would have to be rewound all the way to January 2006 to find the two of them on the court together, though it was memorable in its brevity.

O'Neal got the best of Bynum shortly after the Lakers rookie checked into the game, bowling over Bynum while dunking in a rebound.

Bynum answered quickly, spinning around O'Neal for a dunk, celebrating on the way down court and throwing an elbow into O'Neal's side. (O'Neal answered with a forceful shove, and both players were assessed technical fouls.)

Bynum, who had his best game of the season Tuesday against Chicago (18 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots), was looking forward to seeing O'Neal again.

"We keep missing each other," Bynum said, smiling. "It's going to be an interesting experience for me. He's real big, so I'm just going to try and keep him away from the rim."

Who knows, maybe it will blossom into yet another rivalry orbiting around O'Neal.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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