Since before the season began, NBA fans have been hearing about what is being hyped as the game of the season: The Los Angeles Lakers versus the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.
It will be a clash between the two teams that some have penciled in as adversaries in the NBA Finals next June.
While I have always questioned the wisdom of assuming that any team is guaranteed a spot in the NBA Finals six months ahead of time, there is no doubt that there is interest in seeing how the Heat stack up against the two-time defending champions.
As a possibly entertaining diversion from wrapping paper strewn across the floor and children whining, "but I wanted an Xbox 360!" it does the trick, but as a precursor for what will occur months from now, this game is about as relevant as the Lakers' recent beatdown of the Wizards minus John Wall.
But while the networks will hype it up as if the winner of this game will be the next NBA champion, I have five reasons to respectfully disagree.
Last season, we heard the same things, didn't we?
We heard that a Christmas Day match-up would be a meeting between the two teams favored to meet in the Finals.
LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers played with a sense of urgency, while the Lakers were playing cavalier. Consequently, the Lakers crowd watched a lopsided 102-87 Cavs win.
The Lakers shook off the loss and said they just weren't focusing on the game too much, while the Cavs got a tremendous confidence boost from the outcome.
So what happened?
They would never meet in the Finals, as the Lakers faced a Celtics squad that ousted the team that beat the Lakers like a drum in the yuletide match-up.
This example illustrates the amount of importance this game has to the future of both of these teams.
It means absolutely nothing but regular season bragging rights. If the Heat win the Christmas Day game, but LeBron is once again beaten in the playoffs by the Celtics this year (which would be the third time in four years), do you think he will consider it a consolation that "Well, at least I won that Christmas Day game."
Of course not.
The Heat will only be judged a success if they win titles, not irrelevant "statement games" in December.
If the Lakers beat the Miami Heat, they would have secured a victory against a Heat team that presumably will look significantly different in six months.
By then, if the Heat make it that far, they will have both Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem back. These two players are respectively the Heat's fourth- and fifth-best player. Can we really take much from the outcome of a game when the Lakers are playing a version of the Miami Heat that they probably won't even see in subsequent meetings? I doubt it.
It would be like the Heat winning a home game against the Lakers if L.A. played without Odom and Artest. Sure, people would be impressed, but it really would not answer any questions about how the two teams would exploit their match-ups.
I still say that Mike Miller's return could be a huge boost for the Heat, and if coach Spoelstra decided to play Wade and Miller at the guard spots in the fourth quarter, this team would put serious pressure on even the league's best defenses.
So until the Heat get back their best all-around bench player in Miller, and their best rebounder/defender off the bench in Haslem, any win by L.A. will not be a true measure of how the teams match up.
So you're a Laker fan and you are waiting to see your team show those Miami Heat upstarts who the real champs are when suddenly...LeBron James goes for 32, including two tough shots right in Artest's face! Dwyane Wade drives around Pau Gasol for two of his 33 points! Kobe goes for 31, but it takes him 28 shots to do it! The Heat win the game in stunning fashion and, somehow, the worst-case scenario occurs. What to do?
Cue the justifications:
"Once Bynum gets back into shape, we'll be fine."
"The Lakers are still working out the kinks and getting their chemistry right, they'll be okay."
"The game meant more to the Heat. The Lakers have nothing to prove."
And while you can expect this flip-flop immediately following a Heat victory, the Lakers fan would be correct. The Lakers have already won at the highest level in the NBA. The Heat are trying to get to where the Lakers are, so while the game would show the Heat beating one of the league's best, it would not curb the barrage of doubt about the Heat's chances in the playoffs.
It's not like the Heat critics are going to suddenly proclaim them the "team to beat" after a solid win against L.A. They will still face more question marks and the Lakers will be proclaimed "the league's dominant team."
Although the Miami Heat are currently riding a 10-game win streak, there were two moments that had to make Heat fans very scared.
The first was the incident at the start of the game against the Golden State Warriors, when Wade took an inadvertent elbow to the head from Warriors center Andris Biedrins. Wade was down on the floor for what seemed like years before being helped to the bench. He would return and score 34, but it was a scary moment.
The second incident was during the home win against the Cavaliers, when Wade seemed to be favoring his wrist at times during the game. Once again, Wade shook it off and had a huge game (28 points to be exact), but what happens if between now and April an injury occurs that he cannot shake off?
Obviously, injuries are a part of the game, and each player is equally in jeopardy every time he steps on the court. But the point is: Will anyone be talking about a Christmas Day victory for the Lakers if Kobe goes down with a bum knee the very next day?
The success and failure of either of these team in the upcoming months will be tied to the health of their respective stars. If both teams manage to reach the playoffs healthy and fully intact, each should like its chances for a lengthy playoff run.
Both NBA fans and sports commentators have a bad tendency to think too far ahead. Everyone wants to focus on who will be the next champion before they consider many of the factors that play into deciding the champ, like playoff seedings and match-ups.
There's no doubt that the Lakers are the team to beat in the league, but there is also no doubt that their road to a three-peat would be substantially more difficult if they failed to secure home court for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Right now, the Spurs are the top seed in the West and playing quite well, while the Lakers have yet to play the toughest stretch of their schedule. If the Lakers wind up as the third seed in the West, they would be forced to beat both Dallas and San Antonio without the benefit of home court advantage.
Could the Lakers do it?
Would they want to have to?
So right now, the Lakers have a more vested interest in the teams ahead of them in the conference than they have in the Heat.
Meanwhile, the Heat would have to solve Boston before it even thinks about the Lakers in the Finals.
Right now, the Celtics, winners of 11 in a row, are playing on another level, and seem to be attempting to secure home court throughout the playoffs so a Game 7 in the Finals would be in Boston.
The Celtics are currently the best team in the East, and in all likelihood, the league. Any team in the East with its sights set on a title must go through them first and a Christmas Day win against the Lakers would not change that reality for the Heat.