Kobe-Shaq Christmas Day game

CHICAGO – Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were never going to stay together, despite winning three NBA championships. At some point, that mattered less than who got the credit.

Now they’re free to bicker for the rest of their competitive lifetimes about who’s to blame for their breakup. On Saturday, the rest of us start keeping score when Shaq’s Miami Heat and Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers meet for the first time since the Lakers cast off O’Neal.

From a promotional angle, at least, this is already a mismatch. Maybe only Don King is a better self-promoter than O’Neal. As a carnival barker, the big man is a genius. Selling tickets is practically his stock-in-trade.

Asked whether he expected Bryant to challenge him by driving the lane, Shaq’s first response was, ‘No. Not at all. It’s not something that I have time to think about, because I’m not that type of player.’

But given a moment to think about it, he couldn’t resist adding: ‘But of course, when you’ve got a Corvette that runs into a brick wall, you know what’s going to happen.’

O’Neal was smiling slyly when he said it, but that little cautionary tale works at several levels. First, it puts Bryant on notice that business is just that business and that anyone else who tried to drive the lane would get the same.

Not surprising, it also fixes the differences between the two in terms most favorable to Shaq. It says one of them is fast and flashy that would be the same guy O’Neal nicknamed ‘Showboat’ not long after they started playing together – and the other is solid; that one is high-maintenance and the other decidedly low-tech.

For those fans who still haven’t chosen sides since the breakup, it’s an invitation to do just that. And why not? As he reminded America during a televised interview this week, O’Neal has the upper hand on the court at the moment, too.

‘I got somebody, that other guy, who’s just as lethal,’ Shaq said, talking about Miami teammate and budding superstar Dwyane Wade.

‘He’s a little bit younger, he’s got a lot of tools and a lot to do, but he’s just as lethal. It’s my job to make him lethal-er; it’s my job to make him the lethal-est – if that’s a word.’

It’ not, but O’Neal had no problem getting his point across.

Winning is still about making everyone play better. While Shaq’s numbers are down slightly this season, Wade’s are up across the board – points, minutes, assists, even rebounds. And with Shaq taking Tuesday night off to rest up for the weekend, Wade produced a 33-point, 11-assist performance to lead the Heat past the Boston Celtics, extend their season-best winning streak to nine games, and improve their Eastern Conference-leading record to 20-9. The Lakers, meanwhile, are 13-11 and still smarting over consecutive losses to Washington, for the first time in a dozen years, and Memphis, which hadn’t won in 18 tries in Los Angeles, dating to when the franchise began play in Vancouver in 1995.

Their shortcomings are evident, but none is more glaring than the weakness in the middle. Bryant still thinks he can play or, worse yet, talk his way out of any jam, and so he tries to paper over the holes by playing at a triple-double pace every night. But all he’s proved is that five guys will almost always beat one. That was previous coach Phil Jackson’s mantra, too, and when Bryant finally tired of hearing it, he simply ran Jackson out of the Lakers job.

Just before O’Neal met the same fate, he warned Lakers owner Jerry Buss that hanging on to Bryant at all costs would come back to haunt the franchise.

‘They say I’m getting older. Of course, I am. But can’t nobody mess with me,’ he said. ‘I’m like toilet paper, Pampers (nappies) and toothpaste. I’m definitely proven to be effective.’

O’Neal made his case once he and Bryant were separated, and now comes his first chance to make it when they share a court. Everything about their relationship will be different, but in one important sense, nothing has changed.

‘Kobe’s got all-world talent,’ O’Neal said a few years back, when it still seemed possible they might iron out their differences. ‘But you have to learn to play with other people who can score.’

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