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What the Kobe-LeBron Matchup Proved on Christmas Day

Tom DelamaterAnalyst IDecember 27, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25:   LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 25, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

It was one of the most anticipated matchups of the NBA’s regular season: The Lakers vs. the Cavaliers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James.

Surprisingly, it was over almost as soon as it started. Cleveland turned in a dominant performance and won, 102-87. What did we learn?

Whether Kobe is better than LeBron, or vice-versa? No.

Whether the Lakers are better than the Cavs? No.

Whether Shaq has truly made that championship difference for Cleveland? No.

What we learned, plain and simple, is that the game takes place inside the black lines. And the game we saw revealed a Cavaliers team that is a contender, not a pretender.

That’s about it. For Cleveland fans, it was enough.

The Cavaliers were coming off of solid wins at Phoenix and Sacramento. The ability to consistently win on the road is an indication of a quality team, and the Cavs have looked good on their current West Coast swing.

Still, this was different. This was the league’s current marquee team, the defending champions. And the Cavaliers were not intimidated.

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It was the classic setup: The Lakers had everything to lose, and the Cavaliers had everything to gain. Gain, they did.

O’Neal played just 22 minutes but was effective during his time on the floor, making his presence known and banging bodies when needed. He had 11 points and 7 rebounds, matching his season averages.

The story for the Cavs was their constant pressure on defense, paired with the sudden resurgence of point guard Mo Williams.

Williams was the key to Cleveland’s victory. His pinpoint shooting kept the Lakers honest on defense, countering the all-eyes-on-LeBron expectations of the media and a national television audience.

It was Williams who led the Cavaliers’ charge, netting 28 points and consistently hitting the big shots that stemmed the tide of Laker momentum. James provided a fairly typical 26 points and 9 assists, choosing to defer to his teammates on offense and take what the Lakers gave him.

Also opening eyes: Jamario Moon, who teamed with Anthony Parker to harass Bryant and keep the Lakers off-balance as much as possible. Moon, who has shown signs of brilliance at times this year, finished with 13 points on the night.

Bryant tallied a game-high 35 points, but his 11-for-32 shooting performance revealed the effectiveness of the Cavs’ defensive approach: Understand that he’ll get his points, just make it as difficult as possible.

The final minutes of the game deteriorated into a series of Laker technical fouls and some petulant fan behavior, as a few of the L.A. faithful resorted to tossing foam finger souvenirs onto the court in protest of the officiating.

It meant little, if anything. The Lakers were frustrated—it was only their fifth loss of the season—and so were their fans. Who could blame them?

What mattered, from Cleveland’s perspective, is that they met the Lakers on their own floor—on national TV, no less—and made a statement. LeBron played as expected. Williams played even better. Moon was a factor, as was super-sub Anderson Varejao.

Meanwhile, Shaq did exactly what he was acquired to do, offering flashes of his old self during limited time on the floor and matching Pau Gasol’s productivity on the night.

It all added up to a big win for Cleveland. They’re on a roll right now, and their Christmas Day victory proved that it’s no fluke.

The Cavs have done this before, however. They’ve played great games in the regular season only to see things dissolve into uninspired performances deep into the playoffs.

Round One went to Cleveland. Certainly, we were reminded that, as good as Bryant and James are, they're only as good as their supporting casts when it comes to title hopes. This time, LeBron's teammates played better.

But it’s a long season. The Lakers know how to make adjustments when necessary. Odds are they’ll still be standing when the NBA Finals begin next summer.

If the Cavs can maintain the level of play they displayed on Christmas, they’ll have a shot at being there, too. Then, and only then, will we find out who the better team is.

(This article also appears on the sports blog "A Few Rows Up.")

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