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SHAQ'S UTOPIA IS WHERE YOU CAN'T FIND `HIM'.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

Supporting cast gives Shaq advantage Shaquille O'Neal returned to Staples Center on Saturday and gave his old L.A. fans a nostalgia show. He dunked after pulling down a lob pass. He dunked after one-handing a rebound. He dunked and swung from the rim. He swatted away enemy shots. He clanked most of his free throws. He crowed to the courtside celebs. He cracked wise for the press. Did I mention he had a couple of dunks?

His finest moments came in the 7 minutes, 15 seconds of basketball he sat on the Miami Heat bench after he fouled out of the game.

It was then that everybody holding a hot ticket to the Christmas Day showdown saw why you'd rather be Shaq than Kobe Bryant right now.

``I fouled out, I let my teammates down,'' O'Neal said when it was over. ``But I play on a good team. I play with unselfish people, good character guys. I wasn't worried at all.''

Shaq seemed to take satisfaction - and he should - in the way Miami beat the Lakers 104-102 in overtime in front of 18,997. Not with Shaq winning a one-on-one battle with Kobe. With Shaq's teammates winning it for him.

``When I fouled out, my guys saw I was a little bit upset,'' O'Neal said. ``Flash, Eddie said they had my back.''

Kobe Bryant lost Saturday because when he ran out of gas after scoring 42 points, and that was it for the Lakers, a one-man team that's going to make this a wasted year for its embattled superstar.

Shaquille O'Neal won because when he went out after scoring 24, Dwayne ``Flash'' Wade and Eddie Jones were there for the Heat, a team with enough weapons to expect a trip to the NBA Finals. Let there be no doubt now about who got the better of the Lakers' breakup last summer.

It's the guy tossing out one-liners in the interview room late Saturday afternoon.

``What do I miss most about being here?'' O'Neal said, repeating a question. ``The police officers, the people, the kids in the 'hood, Fox Hills Mall, Beverly Center, all of the superstars. And I miss the atmosphere. I don't miss the traffic, and I don't miss two or three people.''

And who might those two or three people be?

``I don't know their names,'' O'Neal deadpanned. ``Their names have been erased out of my memory banks. If I try to go back, I'll get shocked.''

And what would it take for him to bury the hatchet?

``I don't have a hatchet,'' O'Neal said. ``I know everything done in this profession is business. We just wanted to come in here today and win. I think you guys keep it going more than I or (Bryant) keep it going. I'm over it. I've moved on. I'm playing under new management. I'm playing freely. I'm having a good time.''

Bryant got rid of O'Neal again Saturday, only this time the Lakers guard will accept the credit for it. It happened with 2:15 on the fourth-quarter clock when Bryant drove the right side of the lane and drew contact with O'Neal. The foul was Shaq's sixth. Bryant pumped his fist in temporary triumph. O'Neal muttered an expletive and walked to the bench.

Bryant's free throws put the Lakers up 93-91 in what already was a more entertaining game than the NBA's hype-mongers deserved. He would not score again, going 0 for 3 in the rest of regulation and overtime. He missed a 25-footer at the buzzer and walked blank-faced off the court and into the rest of the season.

``I knew it wasn't going to go in,'' O'Neal said. ``It's called Shaq O'Neal fate.''

You can afford to be smug when your new team is 22-7, 10 games better than it was a year ago without you, and your old team is 14-12, six games worse than it was a year ago with you.

In their first game as opponents since O'Neal was traded by the Lakers to the Heat in July, Bryant had the edge on the stat sheet. He sunk 3-pointers on three possessions in a row in the opening quarter and scored 15 of his team's first 25 points. Bryant had his first driving shot blocked by O'Neal. He won most of the rest of his head-to-head battles with O'Neal, making shots or getting fouled.

``But all day I was saying to myself, 'No layups and no dunks,' '' said O'Neal, who didn't allow any.

Was that no layups and no dunks for every Laker or just one?

``Basically everybody,'' O'Neal said. ``But especially, uh, him.''

After O'Neal fouled out, Wade drove for six points, Jones scored four and took a Chucky Atkins charge, and Christian Laettner had three free throws. As Bryant went cold, Lamar Odom had nine points in the final 6 1/2 minutes of action. But Atkins committed his offensive foul with the Lakers in position to tie the game with 27.4 seconds left in overtime and Jumaine Jones - in the lineup in place of the suspended Caron Butler - hit the side of the board with the second of his two long misses.

``Eddie and Flash stepped up like they said they would,'' said O'Neal, whose Heat have won 11 in a row to tie a franchise record.

It would have been nice for Shaq if he had outscored Kobe and the Heat had won. This was nicer for a big man with a point to prove. He wasn't as good as ``him'' Saturday. But it wasn't all about their individual battle. It was about who is in a better place.

Shaq came back to Los Angeles to show the better place is somewhere else.

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SHAQ AND KOBE, ONE ON ONE

- Kevin Modesti
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 26, 2004
Words:969
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