Arash Markazi
Thursday February 21st, 2008

PHOENIX -- There is always built-in tension whenever Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant step onto the same floor. It's like being at a party and seeing a couple of divorcees in the same room with their new spouses. You can't help but dart your eyes back and forth at both of them as if you were watching a tennis match.

Bryant simply shakes his head and rolls his eyes at such analogies. It's the one subject he hates more than any other despite his insistence that there is no animosity between he and O'Neal more than three years after the two went their separate ways.

"I do not care about that for the last time, geez," Bryant said when asked about the prospect of playing against O'Neal in his Suns debut. "It makes me sick. How many times have we played in All-Star games and [against his teams]? You know? People want to continue to beat a dead horse. Yeah, it'll be fun ... same old generic stuff."

Bryant was partly right. While there may no longer be a feud between Bryant and O'Neal -- they embraced each other at center court before Wednesday's game and wished each other luck -- the Lakers' game against the Suns was anything but "same old generic stuff." If anything, it was a glimpse at the newest championship contender in the ever-evolving Western Conference.

After being eliminated by Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons, the Lakers see the Suns as a measuring stick. They understand that the road to the Pacific Division title and past the first round of the playoffs goes through Phoenix. They acquired Pau Gasol, in part, to get past the Suns, and four days later the Suns traded for O'Neal to keep pace.

The recent blockbuster trades created an unusually electric February playoff-type atmosphere at the US Airways Center. Not only was it O'Neal's debut as a Sun and the last game between the Lakers and Suns this season, but first place and the series tiebreaker were up for grabs. Fans showed up in Suns No. 32 jerseys and "The Suns Will Rise" T-shirts, in honor of the phrase O'Neal coined during his introductory press conference.

It was the Lakers, however, who used the national stage as their debut of sorts. While they have won six consecutive games, Wednesday night's 130-124 win showed the Lakers are not only legitimate title contenders, but when healthy -- Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza and Chris Mihm are expected back by season's end -- they could very well be the favorites to win their first championship since they shipped a certain 7-foot-1 center out of town.

The Lakers' current squad looks and plays like the Suns once did; they're able to turn a close game into a double-digit advantage within minutes, with a high-energy unit that resembles an attacking soccer team at times, coming at you in waves. The only difference is this team has the size and the closer (Bryant) that the Suns never had.

Rarely has a midseason trade changed the culture of a team as quickly as Gasol's move to L.A. did. There has been little to no adjustment period for him as he has pick-and-rolled and backdoored his way into the Lakers' offense within days and has become the perfect complement to Bryant. While Bryant scored a game-high 41 points, it was Gasol (29 points) who energized the team with a couple of crucial dunks and chest bumps after the fact.

At one point during the fourth quarter, Gasol sprinted toward the basket for a breakaway dunk that caused him to grab his jersey and scream while Sasha Vujacic jumped into his arms. It was the kind of energy the Lakers, criticized in the past for deferring to Bryant and having a splintered locker room, hadn't seen in years.

It may take a few more weeks before O'Neal's impact on the Suns is fully realized, but his debut went better than expected by most, including coach Mike D'Antoni. "So much for playing him 20 minutes," D'Antoni joked after the game when looking at the stat sheet and O'Neal's 28:45 of playing time.

O'Neal showed glimpses of the player the Suns hoped he would be, overpowering Gasol and DJ Mbenga on a pair of two-handed dunks, swatting away a shot by Lamar Odom and throwing a perfect behind-the-back pass to Leandro Barbosa. He also showed glimpses of the player who looked on the verge of retirement in Miami, unable to stay on the floor during crucial stretches when the Lakers built up their lead.

"I will take the blame for this loss because I wasn't in tune with the guys, but give me four or five days and I'll get it," said O'Neal, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. "Once we get used to each other, we're going to be the most dangerous team ever created. I'm actually in better shape than I thought I was. It's just the last couple of years that these knick-knack injuries have slowed me down so you earthlings automatically think that I can't run, but Steve Nash has instructed me to get my Randy Moss on and get down the court."

For the first time since winning a title with MIami in 2006, there was no doubt O'Neal looked rejuvenated. He dived for a loose ball. He sprinted to the other end of the court after Bryant goaltended one of his shots.

"I need to prove something to myself; this is the final chapter of my book," O'Neal said. "I only have 730 days left, two years and change, and when I sit down and look at my book, I want to have five or six championships under my belt. If I have four, I'll be a bitter old man. I told them don't build the offense around me. I'm 36 years old [in March], Amaré [Stoudemire] is 25 -- he's going to be the first option and I just have to accept this role and dominate this role."

While O'Neal attempts to role-play his way into another championship in the twilight of his career, Bryant is still in the prime of his and may be on his deepest, quickest team ever. Whether that will result in his first championship without O'Neal is yet to be determined.

"It's the best team I've been on in a while, but I've also been on teams that were part of a three-peat," Bryant said. "I think the collection of players that we have here in terms of our youth, length, athletic ability and versatility is something special. Everyone on the floor is a playmaker. Everybody gets along, and that's something new for us."

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