MIAMI, March 16 -- The verbal jabs at Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant come infrequently, far less than the deadpan one-liners on all manner of topics and the dominant victories nearly every night. But they come nonetheless.
Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, unambiguous team leader and unofficial locker room comedian for the first team in the NBA to reach 50 victories this season, says he doesn't want to interrupt his new team's nearly perfect play in recent weeks by "rambling about nonsense."
The cold war between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal strikes up again Thursday.
(Matt Sayles - AP)
O'Neal, however, cannot resist the occasional, strategically directed poke at his former nemesis with the Lakers, whom he usually refers to without using his name. Asked Wednesday how he and Bryant were likely to fare against one another in Thursday's game at AmericanAirlines Arena, O'Neal responded with a variation on "Kobe who?" that drew chuckles.
"I'm not familiar," a grinning O'Neal said, "with that other name."
In the current circumstance, it is not difficult for O'Neal to wag his finger at Bryant, with whom he co-existed unpleasantly in Los Angeles before a trade sent him to Miami last summer. Though neither team played or practiced Wednesday as the Lakers arrived in town, both seemed on the move -- speeding in opposite directions.
"I'm not even worried about" facing Bryant, O'Neal said during a short interview. "I have a job to do here. [Heat owner] Micky Arison believed in me enough to bring me here. I've been doing the right thing, stuff to make my teammates better."
With its 10th straight victory Tuesday, Miami clinched a playoff spot before any other team. Meanwhile, two straight losses for the Lakers in Washington and Philadelphia gave them seven defeats in their last 11 games and pushed them behind the Denver Nuggets in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Not surprisingly, O'Neal seems to be having a delightful time and Bryant seems miserable. O'Neal occasionally has used Bryant as a counterpoint -- however oblique his references -- when describing the team-oriented machinations of the Heat, which went from a group of young upstarts to arguably the NBA's most feared team after his arrival.
"It's pretty much the same, minus one guy," O'Neal recently said about the environment in Miami. "I get along with everybody, and everybody gets along with me."
In Los Angeles, O'Neal said: "I didn't fold or buckle against anyone who thought he was bigger than the system. . . . Certain people wanted to be The Man. . . . [but] it will cost you. You have to follow the right path to be The Man."
Bryant was not available to comment Wednesday in Miami. The Lakers canceled their scheduled 3:30 p.m. practice.
In their first game against the Heat in Los Angeles on Christmas day, Miami prevailed in overtime, 104-102. Bryant, the league's second-leading scorer, has been swallowed by double teams. The situation worsened after the departure of coach Rudy Tomjanovich for health reasons in February. Former assistant Frank Hamblen was named interim coach.
Things have gotten so bad that Bryant sought consolation after Tuesday's loss to the 76ers in the team's inconsistency.
"We played horrible the last two games," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times. "The one positive is we've been inconsistent all season long. Being that we've [struggled] really bad our last two games, maybe we'll play world championship-caliber basketball the next two."