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Bryant says game just 'us versus them'

MIAMI — There are two games on the NBA's Christmas lineup. One's a rematch of Detroit and San Antonio, league finalists a season ago who have the two best records this year.

The other, in Shaquille O'Neal's estimation, is the game worth watching.

"Bigger people. Bigger story behind it," O'Neal said. "It's going to be a big game."

After O'Neal opens his Christmas presents today, his past meets his present when his Miami Heat host the Los Angeles Lakers, the third time he and Kobe Bryant will face off since their Hollywood split nearly 18 months ago.

There are story lines beyond Shaq vs. Kobe, but that's still a compelling one.

"We had a great run. Three rings," Bryant said. "I think people should leave it the hell alone and move on. . . . I understand it's interesting, but we also have an interesting game. The game itself is interesting."

So are the subplots.

Phil Jackson, whom O'Neal once called "the only coach I'll ever play for," is back with the Lakers and will face the center who teamed with Bryant to deliver three Tinseltown titles. Pat Riley is coaching Miami again, 17 years after winning his fourth title in L.A. — which tried wooing him back when Jackson left in 2004.

There's a marquee guard matchup with Bryant against Miami's Dwyane Wade, Riley and Jackson renewing one of the NBA's best coaching rivalries from the 1990s, the Heat's Gary Payton against his old team, the Lakers' Lamar Odom against his old team . . . oh, enough already, Bryant says.

"How about us versus them?" Bryant said.

Bah, humbug.

O'Neal and Bryant still don't seem to like each other, no surprise considering how their eight years with the Lakers ended in tumultuous fashion. Jackson says his former star duo will reconcile — someday.

"I'm sure he's going to juice up, as far as playing against Kobe," Jackson said of O'Neal.

Countered Shaq: "All my juices have been let out."

Another interesting note is the records. This Miami team was built to contend for a title; it's 15-12. The Lakers were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode; they're 15-11.

"We feel fortunate that we're in a position where we're looking down on the Miami Heat," Jackson said. "Half-a-game lead. In a way, I'm surprised. And yet, we've got nothing to crow about."

Verbal salvos were fired between O'Neal and Lakers owner Jerry Buss, with Buss again mocking the 12-time All-Star's weight and O'Neal saying the man who once signed his fat paychecks is acting like "an old girlfriend" who misses him.