Lakers guard Kobe Bryant complains about a foul call to the officials Saturday… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Like an aging, staggered champion, Kobe Bryant started flailing.
Like the powerful, upstart contender, LeBron James just kept pounding away.
Only a handful of minutes remained in the Miami Heat's Christmas cooking of the Lakers on Saturday when the game's two stars found themselves running alongside each other down the Staples Center court.
Bryant said something. James said something. Bryant spoke again. James answered again. Bryant yelled. James yelled back.
On it went, back and forth, increasingly animated, the players looking straight ahead but screaming directly at each other, bumping shoulders as they tried to climb in each other's heads.
"I was just asking him what he got for Christmas," Bryant said.
That's not the case, of course, because the answer would have been one short sentence about which there could be no debate.
LeBron James got the Lakers. The entire Heat team got the Lakers, wrapped up in glittering paper, sitting there Christmas afternoon just waiting to be torn open, which the Heat did in a 96-80 victory.
"I hope we're embarrassed," Matt Barnes said.
Oh, they were embarrassed, with Ron Artest falling in the stands while chasing one of his kicked balls, and bricks clanking off the rim in a six-basket first quarter, and the joint eventually filled with angry boos by fans dressed in Santa Claus hats.
"This is serious stuff," Bryant said during his postgame rant.
Serious indeed, because if the Lakers can't find the heart or intensity to win a marquee game against an evolving superpower in December, how are they going to handle the Heat in six months when they're even better? If they walk through their most important game of the season so far — they were actually outrebounded by a team with no visible center — then how they are even going to last six more months?
As Christmas games go, this was the Lakers getting run over by a reindeer. They were as ugly as Bryant's green Christmas shoes, as annoying as the Chipmunks' old Christmas songs, and as confusing as eggnog.
It was so bad, the video scoreboard caught Sylvester Stallone leaving his courtside seat with 2 minutes 20 seconds to play.
Yeah, the Lakers even made Rocky quit.
"A disappointing finish to a game as hyped as that one was, but no surprise to us as a coaching staff," Jackson said.
No surprise? In the last three years haven't the Lakers always found their focus for games like this? Certainly, they stumbled in here with a 13-8 record since their 8-0 start and, yes, they had only won one game against a team that currently has a winning record, but still.
"This is a veteran group that knows what to do," Lamar Odom said. "When it's time to do it, we do it."
Um, er, wouldn't Saturday have been that time? Their first meeting with the team that was built to dethrone them? Their first chance to back up all their veiled rips at James' "Decision" and his Heat hype?
Surrounded by fans who snapped up what might have been the most expensive regular-season tickets in the history of the NBA, playing in front of national TV audience that viewed this game as a report card on the state of the league, wasn't this one of those times when the Lakers are famous for, you know, actually trying?
The scary thing is, maybe they were trying.
In a game that lasted so painfully long, Jackson said that sitting through it might have given him "hemorrhoids," the Lakers looked like weary, frazzled former champion just trying to stay upright, while the Heat looked like, well, the Lakers.
"They're doing everything we're not doing," Bryant said.
The Heat played the sort of team defense unexpected this early in the life span of a collection of superstars. The Lakers played the sort of selfish defense often found in a declining veteran group that doesn't think it's worth the hassle.
The Heat swarmed Bryant into missing 10 of 16 shots, harassed Pau Gasol into another shrinking act, and chased the Lakers reserves as they missed 16 of 23 shots.
"We couldn't match their intensity," said Barnes, and he was talking about both ends of the court.
James had a triple-double even though the Lakers were focused on stopping him. Chris Bosh had 24 points and 13 rebounds after spending much of this season invisible. Dwyane Wade had 18 points on a tricky leg and even Mario Chalmers hit three open three-point shots.
"I guess we will learn from this," Odom said. "At least, I hope so."
Oh, we already learned some things Saturday, namely that Artest is truly lost in space this season, an entirely different person, wrestling with James when he should have been guarding him. Maybe his long-awaited title has changed his drive.
We also learned that Bryant is playing with increasingly distracting frustration. Why else would he engage the younger, sillier James in any sort of trash talk when Bryant needs only to speak with his five rings?
"We're just … two guys trying to will their team to victory," James said.
Only one guy did. And it wasn't close. And you can think this was just a season's beating, but all evidence shows that it's much, much more.