The NBA has been playing games on Christmas Day for seven decades. None was bigger than the Kobe – Shaq Showdown in 2004.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal stood at the top of the NBA mountain for eight chaotic seasons. Perennial All-Stars for the Los Angeles Lakers, the pair led L.A. to the playoffs every year they were together. Kobe and Shaq guided the Lakers to four NBA Finals in five years, winning three straight titles between 2000 and 2002. Then, in the summer of 2004, Shaq left L.A. for the Miami Heat. On a Saturday afternoon five months later, the dynamic duo met as opponents for the first time.
The 2004 Christmas Day classic was the highest-rated NBA game since 1998. It would remain the most-watched NBA game ever played until the 2008 Christmas Day meeting between the Lakers and Boston Celtics.
Kobe Bryant entered the NBA as a teenager in 1996. Fresh out of high school, the 17-year-old playmaker had to have his parents co-sign his NBA contract, as he was not yet of legal age. The Orlando Magic made Shaquille O’Neal the first overall pick of the 1992 NBA draft. After four All-Star seasons in Orlando, the 1993 Rookie of the Year landed a megadeal with the Lakers, signing as a free agent in July 1996.
Arguably the most dominant duo in NBA history, Shaq and Kobe played together for eight seasons in L.A. Their on-court chemistry was undeniable. The six-foot-six Bryant had no weaknesses. A quicksilver guard, he could pass, defend and score. He also had a serious demeanor uncommon in such a young player. O’Neal was the embodiment of a man-child. At 7’1” and 330 pounds, he was an unstoppable force inside — and was a playful kid at heart.
Off the floor, Kobe and Shaq had an icy relationship. Personal differences and arguments over their respective roles created a palpable tension. Prior to the 2003-04 season, which would prove to be their last together, Bryant underwent knee surgery. He also faced a very public sexual assault case. Although charges were dismissed when his accuser refused to testify, Bryant’s public image suffered irreparably. Kobe and Shaq feuded through the press, prompting Lakers coach Phil Jackson to issue a gag order forbidding either player from speaking to the media.
By September 2003, things had deteriorated so badly that Laker scout and former teammate Brian Shaw mediated a heated shouting match between the furious teammates. Despite the sideshow, Jackson and the Lakers held it together. Fueled by the dynamic duo’s performance on the floor, the Lakers breezed through the Western Conference to reach the 2004 NBA Finals, where they were heavily favored over the Detroit Pistons.
In the Finals, the Lakers held home court advantage and featured a lineup that included four future hall-of-famers [Bryant, O’Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Peyton]. But they played poorly and lost to the underdog Pistons in five games. Jackson was fired the following day and, in a move that would change the landscape of the NBA for years to come, O’Neal was dealt to the Miami Heat one month later.
After their extremely ugly split, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal met as opponents for the first time on Christmas Day 2004. Shaq had become the head honcho in Miami, where he was joined by a young Dwayne Wade and company. Finally out from under the giant shadows of Jackson and O’Neal, Kobe – who had signed a seven year, $ 136 million deal the day after the Shaq trade — was now the main man in Tinseltown.
The game, which had been scheduled in August, had become a contest of epic proportion. The media was buzzing. In an interview during halftime of a Monday Night Football game five days before the showdown, Shaq told Al Michaels and a national TV audience, “He’s a Corvette, I’m a brick wall, so you know what’s gonna happen.”
Only five months removed from their devastating breakup, the game-day tension in the Staples Center was so thick it could be cut with a knife. On the afternoon Shaquille O’Neal returned to Los Angeles, the nearly 19,000 Laker fans in attendance greeted the Big Aristotle warmly, and Kobe stood and clapped for his former teammate when his name was announced. The two stars put on a show. Before the opening tip, they greeted each other by bumping forearms. Once the game started, Kobe became a stone-cold killer. He attacked the Heat on every possession, scoring at will. The game was close: the Lakers were up by two at halftime and led 77-73 after three quarters. With 2:15 left, Bryant drove the lane, forcing The Diesel to foul out. With Shaq on the bench, Wade took over, tying the game in regulation, then winning it in overtime, 104-102.
Kobe played 50 minutes, scoring 42 points on 12-for-30 shooting while making all 13 of his free throws. Shaq scored 24, hauled in 11 rebounds and had three blocks. But it was D-Wade who stole the show. In his second NBA season, the future hall of famer led the Heat with 29 points, including four in overtime. The loss dropped L.A. to 14-12. Without Shaq, the Lakers would finish the season 34-48 and fail to make the playoffs for the first time in Bryant’s career. The Christmas Day win moved Miami to 22-7 on the year. The Heat would go on to win their division before losing to Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal met ten more times in their illustrious careers, including two Christmas Day matchups. In 2005, the pair met in Miami, where the Heat prevailed, 97-92. On Christmas Day 2009, Shaq helped the Cleveland Cavaliers down Kobe and the Lakers, 102-87.
Christmas Day is the most loaded day on the NBA calendar. There are five games today, highlighted by the Philadelphia 76ers at the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers visiting the defending champion Golden State Warriors.