FAULT LINES SHAQ, KOBE POINT FINGERS AS FEUD ESCALATES.
EL SEGUNDO - In the long-simmering feud between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, the one mitigating force has been subtlety. No direct insults exchanged publicly, no personal attacks in the newspapers, every complaint shrouded in euphemisms and code words.
History should record Jan. 10, 2001, as the day the euphemisms were burned and subtlety died a quick, painful death. The Lakers' All-Star tug-of-war went public Wednesday and there was no ambiguity in what either of the principals said.
O'Neal blames the Lakers' substandard record on Bryant's hijacking of the offense.
Bryant says O'Neal should stop worrying about offense and concentrate on playing defense.
O'Neal insists he must be the focal point, as he was last season when the Lakers won the championship.
Bryant says O'Neal is living in the past.
This time, neither player tried to gloss over their differences as they took turns addressing the media at the Lakers' practice facility.
``When everything went through me, the outcome was good,'' O'Neal said, referring to last season. ``We were 67-15, playing with enthusiasm, the city was jumping up and down, we had a parade and everything. Now we're 23-11, so you figure it out.''
That was a direct shot at Bryant, who has taken over as the Lakers' scoring leader and, on many nights, is the focal point of the offense. Bryant is averaging 29.6 points and 22.9 shots per game to O'Neal's 25.8 points and 19 shots.
That has prompted some to observe that the Lakers are now ``Kobe's team.'' O'Neal's take? ``We're playing with no passion, no enthusiasm and no hunger. You're right, it's not my team,'' he told the New York Times.
The remarks from Bryant were less caustic but no less direct. In Bryant's view, his scoring surge is an asset, not a detriment. (The Lakers are 15-4 when Bryant leads them in scoring this season, 6-7 when O'Neal does.)
And despite the Lakers' struggles, Bryant dismissed O'Neal's contention that the Lakers must do exactly as they did last season to win another championship.
``The way I interpret it from him is he obviously wants to go back to having A.C. (Green) here and Glen (Rice) here,'' Bryant said. ``It's a different ballclub, it's a different year, we have new players and things change, things evolve. You just have to grow with that change.''
As for the Lakers' early struggles, ``defense is what's killing us,'' Bryant said. The Lakers lead the league in scoring, with 101 points per game, but they rank 23rd in defense.
``All we ask from Shaq is to be the dominant presence that he is and play solid defense,'' Bryant said. ``That's it. Scoring shouldn't affect his defense.''
That subject has also been a sore spot for O'Neal. Frustrated by Bryant's play and hampered by injuries, O'Neal has not played at the level that earned him All-Defensive first-team honors last season. Teammates, coaches and opposing players have all observed the decline.
O'Neal himself has admitted he's been ``a step slow.'' But he also implied that his lack of defensive aggression is directly tied to his diminished role on offense. As he told ESPN the Magazine, ``I have to be fed the ball. When the dog is fed, he'll guard the yard. When he's not, anybody can come in.''
In the middle of all of this, of course, is coach Phil Jackson, who successfully merged the Lakers' supernovas and won a championship last season but now must unite them all over again. But Jackson wouldn't go so far as to attribute the Lakers' 11 losses - more than double that of a year ago at this time - entirely to the O'Neal-Bryant relationship.
``It has everything to do with everybody's relationship - their relationship to me, my relationship to them and individually their relationship to each other,'' he said, ``because it's a collaborative thing.''
As for trying to mediate a discussion between O'Neal and Bryant, Jackson said, ``I haven't had any thoughts about bringing them together. I don't even want them in the same room together right now.''
Jackson also said the Lakers' problems are not entirely the result of the shift in offensive focus.
``It's not all the story,'' he said. ``Everything changes as you go through. We have personality changes, we have a lot of changes, we have five or six new guys that are here with the basketball team out of the 14 guys that are here. But the changes don't account for as many losses as we have. The people that are (playing) the minutes played know how to play the game, but we're not playing the same way. And we're not playing the same way defensively or offensively.''
Yet the Lakers also remain within a game and a half of first place, ``so we're not too worried about it,'' Jackson said.
The greater concern might be the respective stubborn streaks of O'Neal and Bryant.
Last season, Bryant was content to be the No. 2 option. Now, he doesn't sound so flexible.
``People wanted me to just kind of level off my play and not improve and just do the same thing I did last year. I'm not going to do that; I worked too hard,'' Bryant said.
That, O'Neal basically said, is the problem.
``When we did it last year, it worked out for the city, to the organization's favor. So I don't know why anybody else would want to change, other than selfish reasons,'' O'Neal said.
Although Jackson calmly maintained the Lakers will once again smooth out their rough edges, O'Neal offered no conciliatory words Wednesday.
But Bryant insisted his relationship with O'Neal ``is just fine. . . . We're cool. I support him, he supports me, we get the job done and that's it.''
Bryant passed off most of the uproar as media hype.
``As long as the Lakers play in Los Angeles, there's always going to be some added drama to it,'' he said. ``That's the way it's always been, that's the way it's going to be. We're just kind of used to it. You know, if we played drama-free, we probably wouldn't be able to win the game.''
Photo: (1 -- color) ``People wanted me to just kind of level off my play and not improve and just do the same thing I did last year. I'm not going to do that; I worked too hard.'' -- Kobe Bryant
(2 -- color) ``When we did it last year, it worked out for the city, to the organization's favor. So I don't know why anybody else would want to change, other than selfish reasons.'' -- Shaquille O'Neal