Short of undergoing a complete rectal exam, the weekend couldn't have gone much worse for me. My Indianapolis Colts got ironed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Da Bears got eaten alive by the Carolina Panthers, and the Bulls and Pacers continued their respective slides into the dark pits of basketball oblivion. To top things off, Jermaine O'Neal got injured -- again!! -- and his repeated absences are killing my fantasy team. But even amid the flotsam and jetsam of my sports dreams, I knew there was one thing I could count on, one shining thing in which I could still believe: Shaq hating Kobe Bryant with every fiber of his massive being.

And thus I sat down to watch the Heat play the Lakers on Monday night, gleefully waiting to see how Shaq would put it to Kobe this time. But, as is usually the case, I didn't get what I wanted. Instead of Shaq dissing Kobe to the press, refusing to shake his hand, or even ignoring him completely, I got...this:

The Hug
Shaq: "I love you, man." Kobe: "No, I love you."

A hug. A hug?! At first I thought it was just a trick to lure Kobe close enough so that Shaq could administer some kind of lethal finishing move, like maybe a chokeslam or the DDT. But no, instead of witnessing a brutal-yet-satisfying WWE-style sneak attack, I was forced to watch a touchy-feely Hallmark Moment: they actually embraced and exchanged a few words, none of which were "I'm gonna rip the eyes out of your head and piss in your dead skull!" My disappointment was palpable. And of course by "palpable" I mean that I could feel the vomit rising up in my throat right before it spewed out of my mouth and covered the TV.

According to Shaq, Celtics legend Bill Russell actually told him to kiss and make up with Kobe. Which proves, if nothing else, that even legends can become senile in their old age. Russell cited his rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain while persuading Shaq to mend the bridge, but Bill might have missed the fact that Kobe was the one who peed all over that bridge, set it on fire, and then dropped an anvil on it. Besides, Russell and Wilt played on different teams; they could be rivals without really hating each other. There wasn't anything truly personal at stake. I think Bill might feel differently about The Stilt if he'd chased Russell off his own team and told the cops he paid millions of dollars to cover up his adulterous affairs.

So now I guess we can call Shaq "The Big Softy." And he looked soft last night. Shaq had only 18 and 10, despite the fact that he was guarded by The Living Dead Center Corps of Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown, and Andew Bynum. Bynum even dunked on Shaq and then nailed the big fella with a forewarm shiver on the way back up court. And, believe it or not, Bynum isn't even in a full-body cast right now. I know you'll now join me in saying, "Whaaaa?!" The time was ripe for Shaq to drop one of his classic 40/20 games, but it didn't happen. Not even close, as a matter of fact. So it wasn't terribly surprising when the Heat lost the game.

I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, Jerry Buss knew was he was doing when he chose Kobe over Shaq. I mean, Shaq is averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds a game this season, while shooting a career-worst 44 percent from the line. Great numbers (excpet for the freethrow shooting) for almost any other center in the game, but not Shaq. His game is suffering a pronounced decline, that much is obvious. And it's only going to get worse. The Heat may look back on this someday and realize that they only got one great year out of Shaq. Kobe, meanwhile, is reaching the absolute peak of his basketball ability. He's the most unstoppable scoring force in the league right now, and probably will be for years to come. Of course, he's also the league's most selfish player, and his ballhoggery tends to hurt his team as often or moreso than it helps it.

But last night's game was the perfect example of why, right now, any general manager with three or more working brain cells would pick Kobe over Shaq. Kobe was unstoppable all night, finishing with 37 points despite going head-to-head with Dwayne Wade, also one of the top players in the league. And Kobe was at his best in the fourth quarter, hitting several clutch shots in spectacular fashion with guys all over him. Shaq, meanwhile, didn't even look interested in the game until the fourth, during which he got to the basket at will but missed five critical freethrows (despite his eternal promise to "hit them when they count") that probably cost the Heat the game.

Don't get me wrong. I still hate Kobe. He's a jerk, a lousy teammate, and the Lakers are never going to win anything of significance while he's jacking up 30 to 40 shots a game. But consider this: even with Shaq and Wade, the Heat are not, at this point, demonstrably superior to the Lakers one-man show right now. And that should tell you something.
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