As in any good soap opera, there was a juicy plot twist just when anyone might be starting to lose a little interest.
Then another, and then another . . .
It began Monday night with Shaquille O'Neal, 18 months removed - or jilted - from his life as a Laker, finally coming to Kobe Bryant to make peace after shunning Bryant publicly on all previous occasions. Then the Lakers proceeded to knock off O'Neal's Miami Heat, 100-92, for Bryant's first victory over O'Neal in four tries.
Since their five-game losing streak, the Lakers are 6-1 and back at their high-water mark for the season of four games above .500.
After the Lakers led big most of the way, Dwyane Wade (34 points, seven assists) lifted Miami back into it, creating some tense moments for the home team. A Wade bucket cut the Lakers' lead to 92-89, but with everyone in Staples Center on their feet, Bryant continued his recent clutch late-game shooting by drilling a 20-footer with 1:35 to play.
Bryant, who removed the protective pad and wrap from his injured right wrist early in the game, finished with 37 points on 13-of-24 shooting and had just one turnover. He got a lot of early help from Lamar Odom (19 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists), and Devean George (17 points) made big plays at both ends late, also giving Bryant a few minutes off Wade.
The Staples fans had gotten to cheer even before the game. After Bryant had tried to initiate handshakes and hugs twice last season, O'Neal this time went to Bryant.
O'Neal approached Bryant while he was on his back, being stretched by Lakers strength coach Joe Carbone, and they shook hands and talked briefly. Soon after, in pregame captains meeting that O'Neal usually dodges to avoid Bryant, they hugged again hello and hugged again goodbye. There would be another hug before tipoff.
"I think it's great," Bryant told TNT at halftime. "Put the past behind us and just move on. We had great years together. I think it was good for the fans to see and for us to put it behind us."
O'Neal was clearly in a playful mood Monday. Early in the game, he acted like he was scratching his thigh so he could give a mocking gesture toward local reporters with whom he used to work.
But going up against mostly single coverage ordered by Coach Phil Jackson, O'Neal didn't have a big game on the last stop of Miami's seven-game trip. O'Neal had 18 points and 10 rebounds, shooting 8 for 14 from the field and 2 of 8 from the foul line.
Brand skippers Clippers to win
Injuries have shaken the ship, but the Los Angeles Clippers refuse to be capsized. With forward Elton Brand back after missing two games because of a hip injury, the Clippers survived second-half mistakes with staunch defense and efficient offense to defeat the Utah Jazz, 102-93, in overtime Monday at Staples Center.
The Clippers were 5 of 5 from the field in overtime, as Brand made all three of his shot attempts. The Jazz shot 1 of 9 in overtime.
Brand was knocked to the floor several times, which might have aggravated his sore right hip. But Brand exerted more hurt to the Jazz, with 35 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and a season-high seven blocked shots.
"Definitely, he's a great player and one of the candidates to be in the All-Star Game," Utah forward Andrei Kirilenko said. "He just had a great game, especially in overtime."
Because Utah defenders swarmed and hacked him when he got the ball near the basket, Brand made a career-high 15 free throws in 17 attempts. Without Brand, the Clippers found other methods to win their past two games against Seattle and Orlando. With Brand back in the lineup, the low-post option was again the priority.
"I know for a fact that the whole team welcomes him back," said point guard Sam Cassell, who contributed 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. "He brings a dimension to our team that we don't have when he's out - low-post scorer, a nasty guy. He's our horse, and where E.B. leads us is where we're going."
In other NBA action: Washington 104, Philadelphia 76; Minnesota 96, New York 90; New Orleans 107, Charlotte 92; Atlanta 94, Houston 83; Denver 97, Chicago 94; Detroit 94, Boston 84; New Jersey 97, Indiana 92; Golden State 109, Seattle 93; San Antonio 93, Memphis 83; Dallas 114, Milwaukee 95.