On Christmas I, like every other rabid NBA fan the world over, am not looking forward to unwrapping presents.
I am not excited about going to church early in the morning (I don't think that's anything out of the ordinary, actually).
I am not eagerly anticipating a standing rib roast and crab legs (those of you who know my first true love to be food writing should be taken aback).
Instead, Christmas, for this writer and countless other NBA fans, comes in the form of a highly anticipated match-up.
Lakers. Miami. Mamba. The King. Staples Center. Christmas, 2 p.m. Pacific.
So you know I had to do a write-up since, after all, Christmas only comes once a year.
Unwrapping the Subplots and Implications
The game itself has been hyped to be a possible NBA Finals preview, which most of us know is absurd. Possible, but still, absurd. The Lakers have dropped a surprisingly high number of games in what has been, statistically, the weakest strength of schedule in the league thus far.
To give you an idea, the Lakers have played Sacramento, Golden State, Houston, Washington, and Toronto, two times apiece, in the first 24 games of the season. This game has been called a test for the Heat, who as you might know by now, acquired LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and a bunch of senior citizens over the summer.
Actually, the Miami Heat will be the first "contenders" to play the defending champions this season; if anything, this game should be a calibration of the Lakers' progress, to see just where the defending champs are on their quest for a three-peat in a game with playoff intensity.
Will the Game Have Playoff Intensity?
Absolutely. If you don't live in L.A. but you hate the Heat, rest assured that the city of Los Angeles takes a Heat loss the same way they take an L.A. win. Sure, the two teams are on entirely different coasts, but Laker fans aren't just Laker supporters. The vast majority of them are Celtic and Heat haters. The fans hate the Celtics because, well, they're the Celtics.
The Heat on the other hand, are an entirely different story. The best analogy I could think of is this—
Imagine that you are a seven year old, only child. You won first prize in your grade level at the science fair, your parents buy you Happy Meals and tell you how awesome you are and how much they love you. Then one day, out of the blue, your parents tell you they're going to have another baby. Remember, you're seven years old and therefore unable to be utterly disgusted at the implications of this news.
They're excited, so you're excited. You think it's the coolest thing ever, until mom gets incredibly fat and that baby comes busting out of the packaging, and all of a sudden, everyone's talking about the baby. The baby hasn't done anything significant with its life except be born. The baby cries and poops his pants and everyone thinks it's incredible. You won first prize at the science fair! You were kindergarten valedictorian! Why does everyone love the baby and not me (I mean, you)?!
Take that unbridled fury, festering over the course of a few more years while you put two and two together and realize that your parents did that disgusting act you just learned about in science class, right under your nose. Let that hatred build, and know that you're going to make that younger sibling's life as miserable an existence on earth as humanly possible. That's how Laker fans feel about the Heat. True story.
"Amazing." "Breathtaking." "Awe-inspiring." These are quotes you hear describing the Heat in transition. While Dwyane Wade's knee leaves him questionable for Saturday's game, chances are he's going to play. Without Dwyane Wade, the Heat lose this game. Without question. In their Wade-less game against the Suns, the Heat offense turned into the 2006-2010 Cleveland Cavalier's offense. Without a Chris Bosh playing well, the Heat offense becomes pedantic and one-dimensional. On a fast break? They're sublime.
The Lakers offense is the same thing it's always been, with the exception that Lamar Odom remembered he was actually an NBA player, and not Mr. Khloe Kardashian. Remember the complaint in the early going that Miami was only three players? It's a valid complaint. As for perimeter offense, Arroyo/Chalmers, Wade and James easily (and I mean EASILY) outstrip anything Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, and Ron Artest can do.
EDGE: Comfortably, Miami.
The front lines are a different story. Chris Bosh may be steadily coming into his own in Miami, but last night's post game interview ("I'm used to controlling the ball more." /facepalm) didn't build any confidence in his comfort-level against a top-flight front line like L.A.'s. Oh, and I apologize for being blunt, but I'll take a 90 percent Pau and a 50 percent Bynum against any other front line in the league. Miami's front line of Chris Bosh and "insert over-the-hill veteran here" is no match, defensively or offensively, for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
EDGE: Major Edge, L.A.
I think this section and the next section really don't need any explanation, but I'll humor Miami a moment. After last season's complaints, the Lakers have developed an uncannily dependable second unit. Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown have contributed consistently over the course of the season thus far. While not on par with the Celtics, the Lakers are up there with the deepest teams in the league.
Miami, on the other hand, could use some help in this department. Haslem is out until April, and Mike Miller isn't quite 100 percent just yet. With Dwyane Wade and his Fantasy Owner-enraging ability to find new ways to get hurt, the Heat have a great team on paper that quickly turns into another iteration of the '09 Cavaliers (READ—LeBron James, one half decent player; Chris Bosh/Antawn Jamison/Mo Williams, and a bunch of scrubs) when Wade sits out. Then again, last year's Cavaliers beat the Lakers.
I am of the belief that if Phil Jackson stared at Erik Spoelstra for anything longer than the requisite four seconds to convey the thought "you are doomed," Erik Spoelstra would spontaneously combust into a hopeless pile of human goo.
There's something about seeing someone as imposing as Phil Jackson on the opposing sideline that scares lesser men. I don't think Erik Spoelstra would even protest if I snatched his beer out of his hand at a bar, much less stand up in coaching ability against an enigma as monstrous as Jackson.
Jackson breathes rarified air and dated (dates?) the owner's daughter. Spoelstra looks like the short, squat guy who looks as stunned as you do that he has the keys to a Maserati (or, in this case, James, Wade, and Bosh). Confidence is key in coaching.
EDGE: Phil Jackson, the true Lord of the Rings.
The Bottom Line
Don't get me wrong—I'm not a Laker fan, by any stretch of the imagination. The Lakers and the Heat both need this game, badly. Neither team has cut its teeth this season with a signature win, and if these teams want to be taken seriously in the Playoffs, you can say all you want about past titles and starting lineups on paper, but both teams need to come to play. I know the refs won't let us down on Christmas Day, so I'm going to predict a close one.
- I see Artest getting in foul trouble if he guards LeBron; LeBron is too fast and too strong for Artest's antics on defense.
- Laker fans shouldn't forget that there are four great things about Derek Fisher's defense: Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol.
- The Lakers front court are excellent pick-and-rollers. The Miami Heat are probably the best in the league at guarding the pick-and-roll. Points in the paint will determine this game. If Chris Bosh somehow goes off against the Laker frontline, the Lakers will be in big trouble.
- Expect Kobe to slash to the basket more often than usual when he is mismatched; there's nothing there to stop him.
The Score: 101-96, Lakers in OT.
Game MVP's: LeBron, with another day at the office posting 25+/5+/5+, while Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom post a double-double.