The Lakers-Heat matchup important, but not because of the hype
The Lakers gathered at their morning shoot-around saying they're not too worried about their Christmas Day date with the Miami Heat, only to see that nonchalance backfire in an embarrassing 98-79 loss Tuesday to Milwaukee.
Lakers forward Matt Barnes predicted that the Lakers-Heat game will cause "a lot of people to make speculations" that the winner of that matchup could end up winning the Finals. Guard Derek Fisher insisted that the Lakers (21-8) aren't using their game Saturday against Miami (21-9) as a "measuring stick." And Lakers forward Ron Artest playfully chided a reporter, who he said was asking "boring questions," because they all related to the Heat.
It's safe to say the Lakers are making it clear they don't seem too excited about the Christmas Day game against Miami. But that's not going to hose down the hype one bit. The NBA made sure to include this game as soon as LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade joined forces this summer as part of the Christmas quintuple-header. ESPN has devoted round-the-clock Miami coverage with the Heat Index on its website. And then there are fans who have shelled out on average of $549 a ticket to see the hyped matchup at Staples Center.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant summed up the Lakers' apparent indifference the best to ESPN's Michael Wilbon.
"We've gotten rocked on Christmas Day and won a championship," Bryant said, referring to the Lakers' 102-87 loss last season to Cleveland. "We've rocked on Christmas Day and won a championship. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter one way or another. It's all about how you improve as the season goes on."
Bryant is right. The game won't determine either way how the Lakers and Heat would fare in the NBA Finals should they meet. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson appropriately remarked how the lack of a morning shoot-around and Christmas morning responsibilities make it hard to truly gauge whether a Christmas Day performance reflects the team's progress. Case in point: No NBA teams have ever met on Christmas and then in the NBA Finals that same season.
The Lakers-Heat matchup actually carries great importance even if the defending champs have become numb to the rhetoric surrounding it. That doesn't mean the Lakers need to win to "prove we're a better team," as forward Pau Gasol put it. It doesn't mean they need to come away with the same spirit of vengeance they had in the 2008 Christmas Day game against Boston because the Lakers felt "embarrassed," as Jackson remembered, for the 2008 Finals loss to the Celtics. But the Lakers shouldn't understate the game's importance because doing so simply misses the point.
The Lakers are coming off an embarrassing double-digit loss to an undermanned Milwaukee Bucks team and are about to enter the meat of their schedule. The Lakers may have come off a 6-1 trip, but as Barnes appropriately remarked: ""We didn't play very well. It was sub-.500 teams that we should've put a clamp down on them. We didn't do that. We just got wins." The Lakers' game against Miami marks the beginning of a schedule that will feature high-caliber opponents, including a back-to-back next week against San Antonio, first in the Western Conference with a 24-3 record, and New Orleans, seventh in the West with a 16-12 mark. Then follows a monthlong stretch in January when seven of the Lakers' 15 games feature playoff opponents if the season were to end today.
"We're still the Lakers," Artest said. "As much as we have to play the better teams, they still have to play the Lakers."
But the Lakers don't have a true gauge of themselves because a light schedule featured 17 of their wins coming against teams that have no more than 12 victories. That's not an indictment of the Lakers. They play the schedule that's given to them. At this time, however, the Lakers' only meaningful games entail victories over Chicago and Portland and losses to playoff-caliber teams in Chicago, Denver and Utah.
With the Lakers trailing San Antonio by four games and Dallas (23-5) by 1-1/2 games in the Western Conference standings, signature wins against teams such as Miami will do wonders. It will help validate the Lakers' standing among postseason teams and will ensure that neither the Spurs nor the Mavericks run away too early with a cushion in the conference.
"That four-game slip we had really makes a difference in the standings," Jackson said, referring to the Lakers' losing streak last month, the first since April 2007. "We can't ever have anything like that again during the course of the season because San Antonio has sent a message and Dallas too. They're going to be consistent, they're playing strong and they have deep benches and they're going to stay up there in win columns. We have to be prepared to match that."
Jackson then argued, "The difficult schedule might help us a little bit and bring attention to some of the details we have to work at." Fisher said, "It'll continue to push us to get better." That's true, but the Lakers must avoid the feeling that they can hold off this task until later in the season. Sure, the Lakers shouldn't overreact to losses and understand that in March and April, every game is significant in the standings.
But the task will prove much easier for the Lakers if their monthlong struggles don't continue. From November to December, the Lakers have regressed in total offense (108.3, 100.1), three-point shooting (41.2, 30.9) and total rebounds (44.9, 42.6), though they saw improvement in total defense (100.26, 94.09). So far, the Lakers have almost taken too much of a big-picture approach, making sure they don't react too strongly to a win or a loss while glossing over the details that ensure incremental improvements.
So yes, follow Bryant's lead in understanding that the game itself means very little. Jackson noticed the team took the opposite approach last season against Cleveland: "We got too excited about the Cleveland game. It became a whole identity for us. It actually caused us to screw up a game." But don't allow that to provide an excuse to ignore Bryant's other stated goal in showing tangible growth as the season progresses.
"We're going to see what we're made of now," Barnes said. "We've been playing the below-.500 teams, and we've been up and down with that. It's definitely, starting with Miami, going to get tough. We've got San Antonio, New Orleans — teams that if we don't play our game are going to beat us down. We know what's ahead of us. We've got to show up and play."
Photo: The Lakers are downplaying the importance of their Christmas Day game against Miami. Credit: Reuters