MIAMI (AP)—Gary Payton distances himself from what he calls “the Shaq-Kobe nonsense,” saying he stays neutral because he’s friendly with both players.
Choosing sides on the court, well, that’s another matter—because Shaquille O’Neal is clearly Payton’s favorite there.
Payton tied a season-high with 21 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer off O’Neal’s assist with 1:05 left as Miami beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-92 on Sunday, the Heat’s second straight Christmas triumph over Kobe Bryant’s team.
“I’m proud that the Miami Heat won. I’ve been in the league too long for me to be proud of anything right now,” said Payton, who got a hug from Bryant after the game. “I’ve had great games. I’ve had marvelous games. So this is really not (anything) to me. We’ve still got a lot of games. We’re still trying to build.”
Bryant, who missed a 3-pointer at the end of the Lakers’ 104-102 loss to Miami last Christmas, missed a potentially tiebreaking one from behind the arc in the final seconds—sealing the Lakers’ fourth consecutive Christmas defeat.
With Payton hounding him for much of the second half, Bryant finished with 37 points on 12-of-30 shooting, including an 0-for-8 effort from 3-point range.
“Gary’s been a hell of a defender his entire career,” Bryant said. “He taught me how to play defense.”
O’Neal had 18 points and 17 rebounds, while Dwyane Wade added 18 points for the Heat. Brian Cook had 15 points and Lamar Odom had 14 points and 16 rebounds for the Lakers, who lost for the third time in their last 12 games.
Payton spent the 2003-04 season with the Lakers, the year they lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals—and the last year that O’Neal and Bryant were teammates. He went there because he thought O’Neal could help him win an elusive first title, and signed a one-year deal with Miami to continue that pursuit.
“We didn’t bring him here on a gurney,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “This is not a quick trip to South Beach. He still has the ability to make some big plays, and at the same time he did a great job defending Kobe.”
Most of the sellout crowd wore red shirts, some donned Santa hats and banged candy-cane-striped noisemakers. There was some holiday cheer, of course: Lakers coach Phil Jackson strode to the Heat bench a few minutes before tip-off, shook hands with Riley, his longtime rival, then shared a quick hug with O’Neal—who teamed with Jackson to win three championships with the Lakers.
But the O’Neal-Bryant relationship seemed frostier than ever.
The duo wouldn’t acknowledge or look at each other before the game, not shaking hands like last year before the Christmas tip-off in Los Angeles. Their first contact was 23 seconds in, when O’Neal fouled Bryant while setting a pick for Wade and drew big cheers when Bryant tumbled to the floor.
After the game, O’Neal didn’t want to talk about Bryant.
“It was just another game to me,” O’Neal said. “It’ll come back around in about 15 more, because we go back out there in January and it’ll be the same old stuff again.”
The third Shaq-Kobe matchup was ultra-hyped, with some ticketholders spending more than $1,000 to get in. They saw a good one, not decided until the very end.
Miami led 80-72 on Payton’s layup with 9:21 left, but the Lakers answered with a 13-5 run that ended with Bryant hitting a jumper with 3:38 remaining for an 85-83 lead.
The lead changed hands four times in the next 90 seconds—twice on 3-pointers by Devean George, the last putting Los Angeles up 91-89. Until those two makes, the Lakers were 1-for-17 from behind the arc.
“We had the opportunity down the stretch,” Bryant said. “That being said, we still played like crap.”
O’Neal grabbed an offensive rebound and tied the game at 91 with 1:49 left, before the Lakers took their last lead on a free throw by Odom 20 seconds later. Payton followed with his critical 3-pointer from the corner, before Wade and James Posey added three free throws in the final 12.1 seconds.
“Gary Payton was instrumental. … He was the difference in the game,” Jackson said.
And that went deeper than just the boxscore. Payton and Odom spent a good portion of the game jawing at one another, with Odom saying afterward that the Heat guard’s mouth “is horrible and atrocious.” The two exchanged more words shortly after the final buzzer before retreating to their locker rooms.
“That’s just the way he is,” said Odom, adding that his 5-for-12 night had nothing to do with Payton. “He’s always been that way.”
It clearly was an event, with Donald Trump and his wife Melania sitting at midcourt, four seats to the left of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. The rest of the star list was diverse: celebs from Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino to rapper Trick Daddy dotted the stands.
The Heat led 31-26 after one quarter, aided by a 9-0 run in a 82-second span. Bryant had 16 points in the first quarter, including a three-point play off an alley-oop dunk with 37.8 seconds left. But with him on the bench to open the second, Miami outscored the Lakers 8-2 and eventually led by 14 with 3:39 left in the half.
Yet just as they did Friday in a loss to the Nets, the Heat frittered away their big early lead. Bryant had six of the Lakers’ points in a 13-4 run to close the half, drawing them within 53-48 at intermission.
And in the third, with Wade on the bench one minute in after being called for a flagrant foul against Bryant—his fourth personal of the game—Miami’s offense sputtered. The Heat managed only two field goals in the first 7:57 of the third, yet never trailed by more than five points during that drought.
Brian Cook’s 3-pointer with 1:59 left in the period—the Lakers’ first in 14 tries to that point—gave his team a 70-65 lead, but Miami scored the final five points of the quarter and tied it at 70.
“It’s great to win against probably the hottest team in the NBA,” Wade said. “The game was very competitive and no one was going to back down from anyone.”
: Miami is 2-1 on Christmas Day. Before winning in Los Angeles last year, the Heat lost to Jackson and the Chicago Bulls 90-80 on the road in 1997. … With 18 points Sunday, O’Neal passed Charles Barkley into 15th place on the NBA’s career scoring list with 23,767 points. O’Neal also made two free throws, giving him 4,960 in his career and tying Magic Johnson for 25th on the NBA’s all-time list.