On Christmas day, the two biggest stars in the NBA will face off in what should be the biggest game of the season so far. Although no huge revelation will come from this game, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant will share the spotlight on Christmas day as they try to wrestle from each other the title of “best in the game today”. Kobe Bryant has owned the entire decade, but is it the dawn of a new era? Time will tell, but let’s move on into our preview.
Last week I made the statement on my blog that LeBron James is the basketball version of The Notorious B.I.G.; here’s what I wrote: “[…]LeBron has graduated to Biggie Smalls (aka the Notorious B.I.G.). The comparison is more on point than you think. LeBron has tried time and time again to bring the Junior Mafia (his teammates) to the forefront, only for them to fail to step up when needed. Last season, Biggie averaged 38 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic; but the Mafia failed to produce in the clutch, thus putting all the burden on the star's shoulders. This season, Biggie is still making platinum hits:
Who Shot Ya: LeBron slaps a huge 44 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assist in a win at Oklahoma City on December 13th.
I Got A Story To Tell: July 1st 2010 anyone?
Juicy: On November 11th, LeBron puts up 36 points, 4 assist and 8 rebounds against the Orlando Magic.
One More Chance (Remix): LeBron opens up the season with a loss against the Celtics in which he produced 38 points, 8 assist and 4 rebounds.”
His resume is obviously incomplete because he is still in the early stages of his career, but he still has several accomplishments already mind you. While former stars such as Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill (still active players, sad right?) have failed to play a game in the 2nd round of the playoffs, James has already played in the NBA Finals. He has so far carried his team to heights that Cavs fans never could have imagined.
With that said, it has never been a secret that Biggie's biggest rival was California resident Tupac Shakur. A conflicted individual that was constantly surrounded by controversy but that always stayed on top of his game. Tupac could rhyme about anything and everything and routinely toyed with his opposition as evidenced by his song Hit'em Up. Tupac is the equivalent of Kobe Bryant with Hit'Em Up representing his unreal 81 point explosion. There are a few more similarities; for instance Tupac switched his name to Makaveli as if to signify his rebirth as an individual and it led to an uproar because his Makaveli album cover displayed him behind crucified like Jesus. Although Kobe wasn’t as controversial, a few years after his sexual assault trial, he changed his jersey number from #8 to #24. Some fans tookt that to mean that Kobe saw himself as a better version of Michael Jordan who wore #23 throughout his career. Let’s review Tupac’s hit list this season
Ambitionz as a Ridah: Kobe drops 33 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and the game winning three point shot against the Miami Heat on December 4th.
How Do You Want It: Kobe puts up 39 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. At the end of regulation with Charlie Bell guarding him, Kobe goes to the top left corner of the free throw line and fakes the spin move left and shoots a fade away jumper that clangs off the rim. With the ball in overtime and the clock winding down, Kobe executes the exact same move from the exact same spot and drills the game winner as time expires over the outstretched arms of Charlie Bell. How Do You Want It?
Thug Passion: Despite all the accomplishments and accolades, Kobe refuses to be content with what he has; he still has the passion and hunger for more. His numbers this season are 29.3 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game, 4.2 assists per game and 2.19 steals per game.
On Friday, the Christmas game will highlight (isn’t it interesting that Shaquille O’Neal is more often than not part of the NBA Xmas game?) two cohesive teams that will display some very good basketball. On Cleveland’s side of things, pay attention to Shaq. Not for his production though, but rather how long he plays. It turns out that the acquisition of Shaq is actually backfiring on the Cavs. In games that he has appeared in, when the Diesel plays 25 minutes or more, the team is 5-5. However, when he plays less than 25 minutes, the Cavaliers are an astounding 11-2. I thought that the stat was peculiar, so I had a look at the lineups the Cavs use and their efficiency. Have a look at the two lineups that the Cavs mostly use with Shaq and the their +/- stats from 82games.com:
-Williams, Parker, James, Hickson, & O’Neal equate to -11;
-Williams, Parker, James, Varejao & O’Neal equate to -1.
Now let’s have a look at Cleveland’s best lineups:
-Gibson, West, James, Varejao &Ilgauskas equate to +29.
-Williams, West, James, Varejao &Ilgauskas equate to +24;
What this means is that the Cavaliers best five man unit is actually their starting five from last year with their 6th man in the replacing their
starting point guard. By the way, pay attention to the Cavs’ small ball rotation . Unfortunately they have not played enough minutes together for 82games.com to compile their +/- numbers, but the lineup of Daniel Gibson, Mo Williams, Delonte West, LeBron James and Anderson Varejao can put up points in bunches. The Cavaliers might use that five man unit in spurts to trap, and get into passing lanes. Indeed, in order for Cleveland to be victorious, they will need to force turnovers and disrupt the triangle offense by playing disciplined defense. If the Cavaliers can force the Lakers to play one on one and shoot contested shots late in the shot clock (paging Ron Artest), Cleveland will be able to control their defensive boards and get a few transition opportunities. In addition, Cleveland will have to rely on their ball movement to get Mo Williams and Delonte West some open shots. If they are hitting their shots, the Lakers will be in trouble because it will give LeBron James more space to operate. Also I would pay attention to one last detail: because it’s a Christmas game, the players are clearly aware that the game is nationally televised and that everyone will be watching. As a result, some of the Lakers players might get caught up in the glamour and glitz and try to showcase their talent (once again, still paging Ron Artest) to the world. It’s like when guys see that new girl either at school or at work; they do what they can to get noticed. But along the way, they usually end up stepping on somebody’s toes.
When it’s all said and done though, I expect the Lakers to win at home against the Cavaliers because they will pound the boards and get a lot of interior scoring from Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In addition, the Lakers will be able to defend LeBron James with three different players who will each guard him differently: Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant. Some might think that the Lakers need to throw different match ups at King James might actually take them out of what they want to do because of the various lineups that they will employ, but that line of thinking is actually off. Look at the +/- stats of three best Lakers five man units:
-Lakers Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Gasol Bynum is +68
-Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Odom, Bynum is +27
-Farmar, Bryant, Artest, Odom, Gasol +26
What this means is that no matter what mix of players the Lakers decide to put on the court, they will be efficient because they will have at least two of their best five players on the court. Los Angeles will throughout the game have a player to match up with LeBron (keep in mind, James will have to defend either Artest , Odom or Bryant; merry Christmas ‘Bron); and will also have a post presence that can score inside and facilitate for the perimeter players. The Cavs will hang in tight, but in the end the Lakers talent will be too much for Cleveland to overcome. Quick note: With the trade deadline being in February, have a close look at the weaknesses that the Lakers will expose in this game. What you should see is the lack of a fluid offense (especially in the 4th quarter) and also some trouble on the rebounding front (you can get the Cavs out of rebounding position by forcing them to consistently make numerous defensive rotations). Considering that Cleveland wants to win a championship, they have to be able to beat the top teams in the East and also the top team out West. Boston, Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers all have the capability of truly exploiting those deficiencies; hence this game will probably get Cleveland to start targeting specific players from other rosters.
Pick: Lakers win 102-96.
Happy holidays to all!