The second matchup in three weeks between these fierce rivals and former teammates comes on Martin Luther King Day, with the Lakers looking to spoil Pat Riley’s return to Los Angeles and beat the Heat for the first time since O’Neal switched teams.
“I think it’s more of TV ratings rivalry rather than a real rivalry,” O’Neal said. “I think if we both make it to the finals a couple of years in a row, then it could be a real rivalry.”
The Heat have won all three meetings since acquiring O’Neal from the Lakers, including a 97-92 victory on Christmas Day which saw Bryant miss a potentially tiebreaking 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Despite this being just O’Neal’s second game back in Los Angeles since the messy breakup, Bryant refuses to look at this game as being bigger than any other.
“I don’t think it’s a story,” Bryant said. “The guy’s in Miami. I mean, who … cares?”
Bryant and O’Neal still don’t care for each other, something that was made obvious from the Christmas matchup. The duo did not acknowledge or look at each other before the game, not shaking hands like they did prior to last season’s Christmas tip-off in Los Angeles.
While Bryant scored 37 points despite going 12-of-30 from the field, O’Neal had 18 points and 17 rebounds, and said after the contest he also did not see a reason for so much hype.
“Just another game to me,” O’Neal said. “It’ll come back around in about 15 more days, because we go back out there in January and it’ll be the same old stuff again. … I wish you all would stop asking me about it.”
While O’Neal should get a warm reception—he got a standing ovation in his initial return to Los Angeles last season—so should Riley.
This is his first game coaching in Los Angeles, against the team he led to five championships in the 1980s, since taking over as Heat coach following Stan Van Gundy’s resignation in early December.
Gary Payton might not get such a friendly welcome back.
Besides having had a bad 2003-04 season and complaining about playing time under coach Phil Jackson during his brief stint with the Lakers, Payton was a villain to Lakers fans watching this season’s Christmas meeting.
The former All-Star spent much of that game jawing with the Lakers’ Lamar Odom, and the two exchanged more words shortly after the final buzzer and had to be separated. Payton came up big during the game, tying a season high with 21 points and hounding Bryant into a bad shooting night, including 0-for-8 from 3-point range.
That defeat triggered a five-game losing streak, though the Lakers have rebounded to win five of six.
The Heat also have been playing well after opening their seven-game road trip with losses to New Orleans and Phoenix. They’ve recovered to win four straight and would be thrilled to head home with a win over Bryant’s Lakers.
“We’ve got it now, you know?” said Miami’s Dwyane Wade, who has three 30-point outings in the last four games. “We’ve got what we need to do to win.”