YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Buzz is more muted for this year's Christmas Lakers game

They used the game against Boston last year as a barometer, but things have changed as the now-NBA champions face the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

December 25, 2009|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Cleveland and LeBron James, who scored 14 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter, defeated Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, 98-95, in their 2008 meeting at Staples Center.
Cleveland and LeBron James, who scored 14 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter,… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

If it's Christmas, the Lakers can plan on two things -- they'll be playing in a game and it will be hyped beyond belief.

A glance at the NBA calendar shows them being busy Dec. 25, yet again, but a pregame cloud of commotion hadn't encircled them a few hours before Christmas Eve.

The Lakers were creating their own firestorm a year ago, eagerly awaiting the Boston Celtics and the team-record 19-game winning streak that belonged to the very same franchise that humiliated them six months earlier in the NBA Finals.

But the Celtics will be in Orlando this year, while the Lakers get the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"There's not as much buzz for us as a team," Kobe Bryant said Thursday. "We were really using that [Boston] game as a measuring stick for ourselves last year to see how much we've improved. It was like a statement game for us. This year's a little different."

Make that a lot different.

The Cavaliers (22-8) started out 3-3, with losses against Boston, Toronto and Chicago. Shaquille O'Neal will be 38 in March and has looked every month of his 18-year career, averaging 10.2 points and seven rebounds a game, on pace for career lows in both categories.

Meanwhile, the Lakers (23-4) have won 15 of 16 since Pau Gasol returned from a hamstring injury. Bryant holds a decisive edge over everyone, including LeBron James, in the MVP race a third of the way through the season.

In fact, today's game can't really be hyped as Kobe vs. LeBron. Or even Kobe vs. Shaq. Most questions after Thursday's practice centered on Ron Artest vs. James.

The Lakers' main free-agent acquisition has actually been at a loss for words the last few days -- a shocker in itself -- while fielding questions about stopping James. His best answer: "I don't have a problem really guarding anybody, no matter who it is."

Fair enough, though the Lakers aren't holding their breath waiting for James to be held under 10 points. He is averaging 28.2 points, 7.8 assists and 7.1 rebounds.

"There's a reason why LeBron James is LeBron James. It doesn't matter who's guarding him individually," Derek Fisher said. "Ron's a big addition to our team defensive goals and I think he definitely gives us some more freedom to do some things on defense, but I haven't quite gotten caught up in thinking, 'Well, LeBron will have, like, six points because Ron's guarding him, so we're going to win.' "

In the same way the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions always play on Thanksgiving, the Lakers have become the NBA's go-to team on Christmas Day, playing 10 consecutive years.

The problem for them, other than less family time? They've gone a salty 4-6, including a period of three consecutive Christmas Day losses to Miami before finally beating Phoenix in 2007 and Boston last year.

The Lakers are now part of an ever-growing cast of Dec. 25 characters. The NBA will have five games today, enough that Phil Jackson wondered aloud r this week if anybody honored Christmas any longer. (The Lakers were hit with another gift from the NBA -- a follow-up game on Dec. 26 at Sacramento. They were, however, granted permission from the league to stay in Los Angeles tonight instead of flying directly to the next city in a back-to-back situation, as is usually the rule in the NBA.)

So are the Lakers excited to be playing today?

"Not really," Jackson said after pausing five long seconds. "It's become part of the business and that's something you never want to get used to -- routines. But it's a routine. Fortunately for me, I have a family that will travel and come down to where we're playing."

Besides, there's always Fisher's angle on having to work Christmas Day. "The amount of gifts that my kids receive, they could care [less] whether I'm really there or not," he said.

Shaq's back

O'Neal has had three double-doubles in 24 games this season, but the Lakers aren't ready to declare his career over. "I think he's still a force," Gasol said. "We'll see how big a factor he can be in the game."

No knee issues

Bryant seemed fine a couple of days after tweaking his knee Tuesday against Oklahoma City. He practiced Thursday and reported no ill effects.

"There's no problems," said Bryant, who landed at an odd angle after being fouled on a layup attempt.

Said Jackson: "I think there's some tenderness there, but he says he's fine."

Gasol finances

The contract numbers have arrived: Gasol will officially make $57 million over his three-year extension, saying he took less money so the Lakers could allocate more toward other players over that time. Gasol, 29, could have earned an additional $7 million on his extension, which kicks in after next season.

"I'm thankful for this franchise," Gasol said. "I'm thankful that I got traded here for whatever reason. It's a privilege to be part of this team so I don't mind compromising for the benefit of the team and the franchise and still get paid very, very well."

Bryant said he was "excited" for Gasol but declined to tie Gasol's extension to his own. Bryant, 31, is negotiating an extension that would also keep him under contract to 2013-14.

"What does his thing have anything to do with me playing five years?" Bryant said flatly. "But, no, I'm happy for him."

Los Angeles Times Articles