How tough are these Lakers?
Now for the losers, er, Lakers . . .
Unhappily -- or not -- for the defending champions, they can't go unbeaten on their East Coast trip as they did last season with wins in Boston and Cleveland, after which they congratulated themselves and went on cruise control the rest of the way.
The Cavaliers, the upstarts who upended them again last week, have an ongoing case of "Stick-it-to-The-Man-eosis," like the kids in "School of Rock."
The Lakers are The Man, having overcome an ongoing case of "What-us-worry-eosis" that recurred in last spring's second-round debacle against Houston, when Trevor Ariza noted, "We thought we could win on sheer talent."
Dismayed by losing to the Cavaliers, Kobe Bryant questioned his teammates' toughness, but it's even more basic.
Pau Gasol was, is, and will always be a finesse player -- or as it's called after big losses, "soft"-- but the Lakers are bigger than the Cavaliers.
Shaquille O'Neal is a massive presence but no Bill Laimbeer-type menace. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is as physical as Gasol.
After that, it's Anderson Varejao, a major energy guy, versus Ron Artest, who has taken on entire arenas.
The key is energy.
The Cavaliers always bring it, but it's been an issue for the Lakers since the days they had Shaq, when no one pushed them around but they nodded off a lot.
If "statement games" are overrated, they can affect psychology, which is timely for the Lakers.
Before the Christmas game, they announced blithely they didn't consider the Cavaliers rivals.
Who knows, maybe the Cavaliers didn't take that as a compliment?
The Lakers were ready last week, but so were the Cavaliers and Bryant had that broken finger that keeps getting whacked.
(Kobe's finger was supposed to heal in four to six weeks. Today makes six weeks and a day.)
Feeling as much urgency as everyone else would be a big step for the Lakers, a point Bryant will also make to teammates, or as he put it:
"I'm going to strangle each and every one of them tomorrow in practice."
He was joking, but if glares could kill, they would be making out their wills.
The NBA Cares, Just Not About the Dunk Show:LeBron James, who said he'd be in the All-Star dunk contest, won't be.
Protecting his back, O'Neal announced, "As his manager, I will only allow 'Bron to do the dunk contest if Vince Carter comes back out, if Kobe comes back out and if another big name comes back out."
No big name responded positively, leaving little names like Shannon Brown and DeMar DeRozan, who are still up for it -- this time, anyway.
The little bazaar before the big bazaar: With teams dumping salary to avoid luxury tax or create cap space, the list of players reported to be available now includes Amare Stoudemire and Rudy Gay as well as stand-by Tracy McGrady, whose expiring $23-million contract is the hottest thing going, plus a cast of seeming thousands (Ilgauskas, Marcus Camby, Tyrus Thomas, Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, any Wizard, any 76er). . . . Houston General Manager Daryl Morey is demanding a good player, like Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala for McGrady. With losses in the tens of millions for this nightmare season, the 76ers may do it.
-- Mark Heisler