It's been fun.
The untold LA story
All of us at ESPN.com, TNT, ABC and everywhere else have now squeezed two seasons of psychoanalysis, speculation, jocularity, interviews, video, etc., etc. out of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant relationship.
And now we've finally had two things we didn't know for sure we would see: (1) the Hug Heard 'Round the World, as Shaq approached Kobe for a quick handshake before the game and soon thereafter the former teammates embraced, not once but twice; and (2) a win by Kobe's Lakers over Shaq's Heat, 100-92.
Meanwhile, we're missing one of the most surprising, even amazing stories of the season. More on that in a sec.
First, a whirlwind recap of where we've been, courtesy of Shaq and Kobe.
Last season, we had the Daddy Christmas game, as the Heat pulled out an OT win in L.A. when Kobe scored 42 but missed a game-winning jumper ... and then the more ordinary Miami home win over L.A. in March.
This season, Miami pulled out another tight win on Christmas, this time at home.
Each time, the Shaq-Kobe relationship seemed to grow ever frostier. The first Christmas game featured a slight pregame acknowledgement/fist-bump/half-hug, while a year later the two made no gesture toward one another.
During all of that, the two teams were giving us more mini-dramas than we could keep straight:
• The resignation of Rudy Tomjanovich and the subsequent return of Phil Jackson to the Lakers
• The Heat's inability to close out the Eastern Conference finals, which led to a summer of controversy
• Stan Van Gundy's resignation, with Pat Riley taking over and O'Neal being suspected of having a backstage role in the moves
• The resumption of the longtime Phil Jackson-Pat Riley rivalry
• The ongoing controversy about whether Bryant plays selfishly
• The debate about his 62-point night
• Kobe vs. LeBron
• Shaq vs. Andrew Bynum(!)
• And much, much more
So what's the untold story?
Well, pardon me for bringing this back to basketball, and pardon me for bringing up something that's about as titillating as Rob Schneider, but hidden in all the drama is the reason for the rise of the Lakers as a credible team in the Western Conference.
It's not Kobe Bryant, as sensational as he's been.
It's not Lamar Odom, though he's been an often unsung hero this season.
It's not the triangle offense, or Phil Jackson's supposed ability to get players to play together.
No -- it's the team defense.
Don't buy it?
Last year, the Lakers were 29th (of 30 teams) in defense, according to John Hollinger's Defensive Efficiency rating, which is simply a measure of how many points a team allows per 100 possessions. They were a terrible defensive team, and they finished 34-48.
This year? Coming into Monday's games, the Lakers were tied for ninth in the league with the vaunted Pistons. They were ahead of Jerry Sloan's Jazz, Jeff Van Gundy's Rockets, Scott Skiles' Bulls and 17 other teams.
That's what Jackson has persuaded the Lakers to do -- play defense. He's getting the usual stellar effort out of Bryant, some strong defensive play out of Odom and Smush Parker and a surprising interior defensive presence in Kwame Brown. More than anything else, he's getting them to play hard.
The team's offense? It's a healthy 10th in the league, but that's actually down from last season's 7th-place finish.
So when the Lakers shut down the Heat on Monday, holding them to 92 points, it shouldn't have been a big surprise. Rather, it should have been the story.
Spurs forward Tim Duncan, who registered his league-leading 30th double double, tangles with Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol, who dunked his way to 25 points. The Spurs took a 93-83 win in Memphis.
I have to put Michael Redd on the All-Star squad because he's averaging a career-high 24.7 points and most importantly, the Bucks (19-17) are winning. They've gone stretches without Mo Williams, T.J. Ford and Bobby Simmons and yet, Redd keeps them alive.
I could easily pick this last spot out of a hat and be satisfied, but I guess I have to go with Arenas. His numbers are pretty ridiculous and his league-high turnover average (4.1) is less than one gaffe higher than Kidd's 3.29 miscues a night. It seems unthinkable to leave Kidd off -- I'm second-guessing myself as I type -- because he's still a top three PG in the league. But the East is so full of guards it's ridiculous.
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Shaq says hello to former teammate Kobe Bryant before the Lakers-Heat game, won by LA (100-92).
Quote of the Day
"It's something that used to bother me in my first couple of years but at this point, I go into every game knowing I'm not going to get any calls, and just play through it."
-- Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, after scoring 20 points in a 97-94 loss to Denver. Bulls GM John Paxson tried to confront the officials after the game, the AP reported
-- Andrew Ayres
Boris (CHILE): What do you think about guarding Manu Ginobili in the world cup ?
RK (motown): Bruce, how is like guaring Richard Hamilton, especially guarding him in all 7 games in the finals.
The Rockets lost again without Tracy McGrady, dropping them to 0-12 in the games he has missed, as opposed to 12-12 when McGrady has played this season. McGrady has had the greatest effect on his team's record this season among players who have both played and missed at least 10 games.
The next-most influential player by this method is Andrei Kirilenko. The Jazz are 17-11 when he has played and 2-8 in the games he has missed.
• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
Luke (Cleveland): With the Cavs struggling right now, what can the Cavs do to solve this? I think a trade is needed to help keep Cleveland in the playoff race.
Chris (Vegas): John - what are some possible trade scenarios for the Jazz to bring in some guard help?
Greg (LA): What do the Spurs have to do to be able to beat Detroit in the Finals?