Kobe Bryant was in a revealing mood Sunday, expressing regret that he and Shaquille O'Neal ended as badly as they did and divulging that he wouldn't be in complete game shape until after the All-Star break in February.
The Lakers and Miami Heat play each other today, stirring up the twice-annual debate about the crevasse that formed between Bryant and O'Neal, former teammates turned combatants until a pregame detente last January at Staples Center.
Bryant, who normally speaks in platitudes when discussing O'Neal, acknowledged that their acrimonious breakup was the largest regret of his career.
"Yeah, any time you win three titles with somebody, you'd like to end it on a better note," he said. "That's where that stands."
Does he wish they were still teammates?
"It is what it is," he said. "He's in Miami and I'm doing my thing here in L.A. It's not that big a deal."
It was for years, when they were and then weren't together, although O'Neal won't play today because he is recovering from surgery five weeks ago to repair torn knee cartilage.
Despite a strong 18-9 start, the Lakers won't be at full strength either, going without Lamar Odom for a seventh game (they are 3-3 since his knee injury).
They also won't be getting a fully fit Bryant for another two months, according to an expert on the subject -- Bryant. He returned from knee surgery Oct. 3, but said Sunday he wouldn't be in complete game shape until "February or so."
"The more you play, you get into game shape," he said. "By February is when I'll start hitting my stride."
It's an unsettling thought for the Lakers, but possibly also for the rest of the league.
Bryant may not be in tiptop shape, but he is averaging 27.8 points a game and his field-goal percentage is up from 45% last season to 47.8% -- currently his career best for a season.
His assists are up as well, to 5.2 a game after 4.5 last season. He is averaging 5.2 rebounds, down slightly from 5.3 last season.
The most eye-opening stat, however, remains the Lakers' record.
"That's a solid record for us, especially considering all the injuries we fought through, the absence of Lamar," Bryant said. "... I'm very happy with where we are."
This is the eighth consecutive year the Lakers will have played on Dec. 25, although Phil Jackson is not exactly feeling the holiday warmth.
"I love playing on Christmas," the Lakers coach said dryly. "What else could be merrier?"
at Miami, 11:30 a.m., Ch. 7
Site -- AmericanAirlines Arena.
Radio -- 570; 1330.
Records -- Lakers 18-9; Heat
Record vs. Heat (2005-06) -- 1-1.
Update -- The Heat has been anything but hot after winning the championship last season, faltering without Shaquille O'Neal, who played only four games before undergoing knee surgery. Dwyane Wade has tried to pick up the slack, averaging 28.1 points and eight assists, but the Heat ranks 25th in the league in scoring (94.1 points a game).