The reunion of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in the All-Star game Sunday night was one of the highlights of the All-Star break. Now that the weekend’s over, however, Bryant’s focus is back on leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title without his former teammate.
Bryant and the league-best Lakers resume their quest for a championship Tuesday night when they host the Atlanta Hawks.
Bryant and O’Neal took the floor as teammates Sunday for the first time since Los Angeles lost to Detroit in the 2004 NBA finals. O’Neal was traded that summer, breaking apart a duo that led the Lakers to three straight titles but was perhaps better known for the frequent feuding that made the breakup inevitable.
In their reunion, Bryant and O’Neal were selected as co-MVPs after leading the Western Conference to a 146-119 win over the East. Bryant said he enjoyed himself but has more important things to worry about now.
“It was a fun weekend,” Bryant said. “As soon as I leave this podium, it is time to get back down to business. Looking forward to it.”
Los Angeles (42-10) lost a key player when center Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury Jan. 31. Though the Lakers closed the first half with a 113-109 loss at Utah, they won in Boston and Cleveland without Bynum and went 11-2 in their last 13 games before the break.
Bynum could be out until the playoffs, but Bryant isn’t tempering his expectations.
“We want to win another championship,” he said over the weekend. “We have a good team, have the team to do it. That’s our goal.”
The Hawks (31-21) aren’t talking about championships yet, but they’re in the mix for homecourt advantage in the East after winning five of their last seven before the break.
Atlanta is six wins shy of its total from last season, when it took eventual champion Boston to seven games in a first-round playoff series.
“That just shows the maturity and hard work in the offseason to get us where we are right now,” forward Josh Smith said.
Hawks coach Mike Woodson thinks his team’s strong play against the Celtics last spring has been a significant motivator for its success this season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are hungry (from) last year after getting a taste of success in the first round against the world champs,” Woodson said after Atlanta closed the first half with a 99-95 win at Detroit on Wednesday night.
“We’ve learned a lot from playing in that series against Boston. They have kind of made us who we are. I say to these guys all the time: If you can take Boston to seven games, there’s no team in this league you can’t beat.”
If there is, though, it could be the Lakers - the one team in the NBA with a winning percentage (.808) better than the Celtics’ (.800).
The Lakers have shot 50.0 percent or better in each of their last five home games against the Hawks, going 4-1 in that stretch. Bryant and Pau Gasol scored 23 points apiece in Los Angeles’ 122-93 rout of Atlanta last Feb. 19 at Staples Center.
Johnson led the Hawks with 18 points in that game, while the rest of the starting lineup combined for only 21 points and 9-for-30 (30.0 percent) shooting.
Despite that flat performance on the West Coast, the Hawks managed to split their series with the Lakers last season, riding Johnson’s 28 points to a 98-95 home victory Feb. 6.
Johnson’s averaging 25.0 points and shooting 48.9 percent in his last seven games against Los Angeles.