By Scotty Wampler
Kobe Bryant brushed off the magnitude of Saturday’s home contest versus the Miami Heat this week, telling ESPN’s Michael Wilbon the outcome of the game won’t impact the big picture for either team’s season.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s all about how you improve as the season goes on.”
Not so fast, Mamba.
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It’s no surprise to see Kobe playing his usual aloof self when it comes to promoting quite possibly the most hyped regular season NBA game since…. well, three weeks ago in Cleveland. But the fact of the matter is, the marquee Christmas matchup on this year’s NBA calendar holds greater significance — for both teams — than a lot of folks expected. Maybe, more than some are willing to admit.
Yes, the expected storylines one could have written about in July remain relevant. The Heat, still lacking a true statement win in this 2010-11 season, figure to be more focused than ever Saturday afternoon. After all, how better to punctuate winning twelve or thirteen of their last fourteen games than to whip the champs at Staples? The Lakers, on the other hand, after LeBron and his talent-taking excursion last summer, want nothing more than to prove why their championship story was the headline worth talking about.
But the deeper story here are the parallels between the Heat and Lakers on Christmas Day 2010. Twenty-nine games into the regular season, the Lakers arguably have yet to beat an elite opponent, save for a seven-point victory over the Bulls last month. That same Chicago team, with the addition of a healthy Carlos Boozer, topped Los Angeles in Chicago on December 10.
The Lakers also lost to the Nuggets in November, as well as the Jazz, a team with only one more loss on the season than the reigning champs.
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Granted, L.A. just completed a 6-1 road trip, but victories against the Sixers, Nets, Clippers and Wizards are nothing to write home about.
Miami’s troubles began with an opening night loss at Boston. The Heat followed that up with losses at New Orleans, Orlando and Dallas, also falling to Utah at home on November 9. Both the Celtics and Mavericks added two more defeats for Miami, going a combined 4-0 against the Heat so far.
It’s a collision of mediocre seasons, at least by the hefty expectations of the stars on each team, and, probably to a larger degree, the fans, that defines the first post-Cavaliers battle between Kobe and LeBron. And you have to wonder, following a summer and fall of monumental personal criticism, following a disappointing first several weeks in South Beach, what better way to establish the Heat’s super-trio as a viable threat to the Lakers than to kick Kobe and Co. in the teeth, at home, in front of what will surely be a larger-than-average TV audience?
We all saw how the self-appointed king responded to the pressure of his return to Cleveland only three weeks ago, dismantling the Cavaliers with his thirty-eight points, eight assists and five boards in a measly 30 minutes on the floor. With what we only can assume will be greater motivation, and certainly a lot less pressure (read: no fear of size D Duracells), what can we expect from LeBron on Saturday?
One thing’s for sure: he won’t have Anderson Varejao blocking his path to the basket.
Five games back from being sidelined due to a surgically repaired knee, Andrew Bynum is averaging only seven points in about sixteen and a half minutes, but offensive production isn’t why the big guy separates the Lakers from the rest of the NBA. He gives the Lakers even more size and length, flanking Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom and, more importantly, giving Gasol valuable minutes on the bench to rest.
Though Boston is clearly the class of the Eastern Conference again this season, LeBron and Wade both know the team that matches up best against the Heat, should Miami survive the East, is a healthy Lakers squad and their unequaled size. Slaying the Lakers on Christmas Day, and the Heat’s critics in the process, would essentially solidify Miami as a title threat. That, in effect, is what LeBron and his cohorts are playing for Saturday night. Respect.
For the Lakers, it’s an opportunity to right the ship, and to remind the South Beach crew that, though their time as the class of the NBA is coming, it’s not today, and it’s not this year.
Kobe, of course, actually knows exactly what he’s talking about. What the Lakers look like on Christmas is much less important than what they look like on Easter.
As for his comments, though, he’s not fooling us. Rest assured, the five-time champ decided Saturday mattered on July 8.