Kobe Bryant has yet to really take over a game this season, but if he intends to do it, he might as well start Christmas Day at the Staples Center, when his Los Angeles Lakers take on LeBron James' Miami Heat in a clash of the titans.
Bryant has yet to get his licks in against the team already heralded as a long-term superpower, but he is surely itching to disprove those who declaim his demise with a big performance on the biggest stage he has seen during the young season.
Of course, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have their share of doubters to disprove too, and the Heat ride into town having won 11 of 12 games in December, with one game left in Phoenix on Thursday before their date with LA.
James' crew averages roughly 66 points and 21 rebounds per game, so Bryant had better be ready to shoot the lights out if he wants to overcome their barrage.
Of course, basketball is a team game, and this contest is not really between Bryant and the Big Three. It is between the Lakers and Heat, two of the NBA's best all-around teams. Read on for a breakdown of all the key matchups in this clash of the titans.
Lining up the careers of Arroyo and Fisher side by side, Fisher will certainly be remembered as the superior player. Even now, as Fisher reaches his late 30s, he is probably better as a pure athlete and basketball player than Arroyo.
Within the context of the team on which he plays, though, Arroyo has been pretty darn good this season. He is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and over 44 percent from beyond the arc. He has dished out 2.1 assists per game and turned the ball over only 0.7 times per contest.
He defends as well as Fisher does anymore, and he fits easily into the Heat's offensive system, which is decidedly not focused on him.
Wade was visibly uncomfortable early in the season as the Heat struggled to achieve team cohesion. That discomfort has given way to Wade's usual explosiveness and defensive intensity, which has catapulted the Heat back into the elite in the Eastern Conference.
Even during his worst season in over a decade, Bryant is no slouch himself. He has slight edges over Wade in scoring and assists this season, and he remains the heart and soul of the Lakers. That said, he has only 50 points over his last three games, and the Lakers are too dependent on his fading shooting touch.
By the narrowest of margins, Wade has the edge on Bryant right now. That could change before the next meeting of these two squads.
As narrow as the margin between Wade and Bryant should be, that is how wide the berth between James and Artest has become.
James finally looks comfortable in his new digs on South Beach and has begun his usual midseason routine of beating opponents in every way imaginable.
Artest, on the other hand, has been a non-factor more often than not this season. His nose for the basket seems to be gone, and he has become a less efficient ball hawk on the defensive end. Artest has ample time to round into form, but even on his best days, he is no James.
Bosh, like James and Wade, took a while to adjust to not being the one and only primary option in the offense at the outset of this season.
The difference between Bosh and his companions is that the adjustment, once made, has not cured all that ails Bosh. That is because he is a bit of a system guy, a post player who thrives on volume of opportunities. Those opportunities do not always come within the confines of this offense, so Bosh is somewhat marginalized.
He remains an asset, but he may not be the elite player many saw when he so dominated the floor in Toronto over the past five years.
Meanwhile, Odom continues to prove his versatility by thriving no matter where in Phil Jackson's complex system he is asked to contribute. He has managed to hang on to a starting job to this point, even after the return of Andrew Bynum, and he may well do so in the long term if Pau Gasol proves able to consistently bang around with the centers on the low blocks without taking too much physical abuse.
In the battle of these two goliaths, Ilgauskas has two key advantages: he is bigger, and less is expected of him.
It is no sweat off the back of Ilgauskas to go down to the low block, throw his weight around and collect whatever garbage points and rebounds may be left for him after the team's bigger dogs have had their fill.
Gasol trumps him in every other respect: He is quicker, uses better technique on the glass, is a better leaper and has a better outside shooting touch and inside scoring instinct.
If James over Artest was easy, this choice is elementary. Gasol remains one of the most well-rounded big men in basketball, while Ilgauskas remains one of the biggest big men in basketball.
It is altogether possible that the first four men off the bench for the Lakers (Andrew Bynum, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown, in some order) are each better than the best reserve player on the Heat's active roster.
The Lakers' depth has surprised some and has certainly been a huge reason the team has been able to withstand Bynum's absence due to injury, Bryant's struggles and Fisher's rapid aging.
Another reason is coach Phil Jackson, who inspires such confidence in every group of players he leads that it is hard to imagine a Jackson-led team panicking under any circumstance. The veterans Lakers have bought into Jackson's system and have created a cohesive, intelligent group that always plays to its ability.
Miami is in quite the opposite condition. Every loss seems to fray the confidence of coach Erik Spoelstra, so much so that the supporting cast for James, Wade and Bosh seem not to entirely accept Spoelstra as their fearless leader.
The edge is a big one for Los Angeles and could be the difference not only in this contest, but in any future matchups as well.