One juicy rivalry segues to another

MIAMI -- In the world of barley and hops, it's pretty easy to make St. Patrick's Day seem like Christmas Day. Surely you've seen those Guinness commercials.

In the hoops world?

One salty rivalry wasn't enough. The NBA needed two of them Thursday night and, fortunately, had a couple.

There was a lot to compete with on this St. Patrick's Day. Unlike Christmas, when the only obstruction was the holiday itself, the renewal of basketball's answer to the Ali-Frazier blood feud would have to be special to make the country not only look in but stay with it. As if dueling for viewers with a certain collegiate tournament wasn't enough, McGwire vs. Canseco at baseball's congressional steroid hearings had already produced the real buzz du jour.

Of course, that's undoubtedly why the league wanted to air the most attractive regular-season matchup it could offer when the NCAA's dancing commenced. You'd struggle to name even one other pairing on the regular-season schedule that could compete with all of Thursday's newsiness. Yet this third installment of Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant really did until the late stages of the Miami Heat's 102-89 triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Reason being: It's not necessarily just Kobe vs. Shaq anymore. It's Kobe vs. Dwyane Wade, too.

"He's a hell of a player," said Miami's Eddie Jones, referring in this case to his teammate as opposed to Bryant, his longtime pal from Philly.

"He's an incredible player, man. He's definitely climbing."

"He's already there," O'Neal added, when asked if Wade is approaching Bryant's level. "He's been there."

Shaq is certainly not the most objective judge in this comparison, and his three championships with Kobe diminish the claim, but even Bryant's most ardent fans had to be impressed by the resistance Wade offered. It certainly helps to have Shaq as an outlet for help, and quality defenders like Jones and Shandon Anderson to take on the responsibility of guarding Kobe, but Wade established early -- from the game's second possession, really -- that the duel of note at American Airlines Arena would not really involve O'Neal.

Bryant raked the ball away from Wade on the wing, setting up a Lakers fast break which ended at the other rim with Wade swatting Bryant's layup away. Wade was whistled for a foul, but that's when the game-long chirping started between O'Neal's current and former sidekicks. They also exchanged words and glares as the first half ended, which Wade later described as a major spark.

"He's not going to back down," Shaq said of Wade, "... and that's one of the reasons I'm here [in Miami]."

"He makes a statement every time he plays," said Heat guard Damon Jones, "and he made a really big statement tonight."

That's not to say anyone ignored that Shaq-and-Kobe dynamic. For dramatic effect, O'Neal waited several minutes after his teammates took the floor to come out of the tunnel alone and join them. Eyes then riveted to the center circle, as always, to see what kind of greeting before the opening tip we'd get this time. Before the Christmas Day showdown, Shaq tried to ignore Kobe's welcome. At the All-Star Game, neither party even attempted a greeting. Here they actually exchanged a few pleasant words before Shaq extended his hand for a fist tap Kobe couldn't see through the bodies around him. It'll have to be recorded as a botched fist tap.

Yet solace came in the second quarter, when we were treated to a better Corvette-meets-Brick Wall collision than anything seen in the first match at Staples Center. Bryant drove the lane hard with 3:58 to go in the second quarter and bounced off O'Neal right side even harder, clutching at his leg after impact. O'Neal, not surprisingly, looked pleased with himself.

It should be noted, though, that Bryant calmly sank both free throws to hush a crowd chanting in vain to rattle him. By halftime, Kobe was halfway to matching the 42 points he scored in the first meeting.

The problem, again, was the second half, as seen in L.A.'s previous two losses. Bryant shot a combined 2-for-17 after intermission in defeats at Washington and Philadelphia and was hounded by the Heat into missing his first nine shots of the second half, with Miami religiously sending multiple defenders at Bryant as he came off screens and holding him to five points after the break. Wade, meanwhile, had 16 points at the half and kept attacking, matching O'Neal's eight points in the final period as the hosts steadily pulled away.

All that was missing from the second-year star was an admission from Wade that he drives even harder to the basket than usual when he sees Bryant on the floor ... as if Shaq needs convincing that his new sidekick is special, too.

"That's not how he is," Damon Jones said. "The way we've handled it all year is, he does all the playing and I do all the bragging. I'm his promoter."

Yet even the loquacious Jones won't dispute that this is a matchup that really needs no Don King. Chapter 1 on Dec. 25 drew an overnight rating on ABC of 8.0, higher than any regular-season NBA game since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls faced the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in February 1998.

You couldn't claim this was an instant classic, but it had a nice mix of action and animosity.

O'Neal spoke of Bryant with typical disdain afterward, saying he "couldn't care less" if the Lakers make the playoffs and labeling this as nothing more than "one of his top 2,000 games -- not a game I was losing any sleep over."


He took the high road again, refusing to swing back no matter how reluctant O'Neal sounds to forge a truce.

As he prepared to leave the building, Kobe flashed a weary smile and insisted that he won't abandon his playoff dreams, no matter how bleak it looks for L.A. The Lakers, now 32-32, are 1½ games out of the No. 8 spot and sported the toughest remaining schedule in the league as of Thursday morning.

"We're gonna to try to pull it out," he said. "Gonna try to do the impossible, as some of you guys call it."

Eddie Jones, as close to a neutral party as there is in this conflict, was finally asked to sum up the two encounters.

"Two games," he said, "and a whole bunch of talk."

And maybe two rivalries now instead of just one.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.