LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson haven’t really checked out the Miami Heat much this season. They’ve caught late-night highlights and maybe logged a few minutes with a game from the opposite coast, but not a whole lot more.
It’s finally time for the two-time champions to get an up-close look at their most intriguing challengers.
When LeBron James, Chris Bosh and – maybe – Dwyane Wade take on the Lakers in the NBA’s Christmas showcase today, most players in both uniforms hesitate to pile any extra significance onto a television-manufactured event. Most minimize every aspect of it, saying it’s no more than a holiday amusement for fans seeking a break from present-opening and eggnog-drinking.
“I don’t think it’s a measuring stick for us,” James said. “It’s just another game.”
Yet competitiveness usually trumps Christmas for elite NBA players. Just ask Bryant – or don’t, since he tellingly hasn’t spoken to the media since getting ejected from the Lakers’ last game.
Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher concede both teams are anticipating the marquee matchup as a chance to gauge their readiness for bigger games in the months to come. And if they eventually face each other in June for the biggest prize of all, even better.
“The personalities that are going to be matching up in this game, I don’t know if it can get any bigger,” said Fisher, the Lakers’ point guard who entertained free-agent interest from Miami last summer. “Although there will be other games in this regular season that can mean more, from a personality standpoint and a star power point, I don’t know if it can get any bigger.”
Fisher believes the NBA’s impressive television ratings and overall increased spotlight this season can be traced largely to these two franchises and the Boston Celtics. All three boast oversized personalities, compelling team dynamics and remarkable success this season, but the Lakers haven’t yet played either opponent.
In fact, the Lakers have monitored the Heat’s development with interest more suited to casual fans than potential rivals – something that might change today.
“The dynamic players that they have, as a fan of a game, it makes it easy to watch,” Los Angeles forward Lamar Odom said.
The NBA has waited seven years for a playoff matchup between Bryant and James. James’ Cavaliers beat the Lakers on Christmas last year in a game punctuated by dozens of foam hands thrown onto the Staples Center court by frustrated fans, but Cleveland couldn’t get out of the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, leading to James’ departure.
“I was in Cleveland and we beat the two-time champs twice in one season, and it didn’t get me anything,” James said. “It’s one game, guys. The media guys hype it up, but when that time is over and done with, we’ve got to move on to the next one.”
Wade might miss the game with a sore knee, although Jackson expects him to play. Wade’s absence didn’t slow down the Heat on Thursday night during their win at Phoenix, with James scoring 36 points.
While the Heat have been outstanding lately, the Lakers’ 21-8 record isn’t terribly impressive considering it came against the NBA’s easiest schedule to date. Los Angeles even flopped in its warmup for Miami, losing by 19 points at home to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.
“I thought their comeuppance might come against Miami, but Milwaukee delivered the blow,” Jackson said. “So maybe it got their attention so they can get focused on basketball.”
Jackson has participated in more than 20 Christmas showcase games dating to his playing career with the New York Knicks.
The 11-time champion coach ranks this meeting with Miami on par with Shaquille O’Neal’s return to Los Angeles with the Heat on Christmas 2004, even though he was on a one-year sabbatical from the Lakers at the time. He doesn’t anticipate the same excitement and vigor he felt from Christmas 2008, when the Lakers snapped the defending champion Celtics’ 19-game winning streak at Staples.
“This one measures up to that,” Jackson said. “I don’t think it surpasses that.”