After Last Year's Christmas Letdown, Lakers More Prepared Against Heat
The Lakers talked about how Cleveland wasn't a rival and guard Kobe Bryant called it "just another game.'' Well, what then happened?
The Cavaliers crushed the Lakers, 102-87, and the fans at the Staples Center let their frustrations be known. They littered the floor late in the game with foam hands that had been given away.
"Last year, on Christmas, we certainly didn't. The fingers rose to the occasion last year,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after a practice Thursday.
With that in mind, the two-time defending champs vow to be more ready for Saturday's game against Miami, which marks the 12th straight year the Lakers have played on Christmas.
"We understand that as champions on a day like this, what might be just another game to you, to another team it's like it makes their season,'' forward Lamar Odom said about what the Lakers learned from last year's Christmas debacle. "We understand (Miami is) going to come out firing and playing really hard, trying to prove to everybody that they're championship contenders. I think we learned from (last year) and we understand that we need to raise our level of intensity early in the game right from the jump ball.''
The Lakers know all about playing really hard on Christmas against a defending champion. Two years ago, the Lakers walloped defending champion Boston, 92-83, on Christmas with Jackson saying the team was determined to make up for being "embarrassed'' 131-92 by the Celtics when they wrapped up the title in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals.
The common thread between this Christmas and last year's is LeBron James is once again coming in with a team he hopes will topple the defending champs in the Staples Center. The Cavaliers won big last year in a game James called a "measuring stick.''
Actually, it didn't turn out to be one. The Lakers also lost to Cleveland last January. But by the end of the season the Lakers were being fitted for rings for a second straight year and the Cavaliers hadn't even made the Eastern Conference finals.
James, in case you've been sailing around the world in a rubber dinghy, has beefed up his chances at a first ring by joining forces with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat. That's enough to get the attention of Lakers big man Pau Gasol.
"A game like this is definitely a game that you can send a statement and make a statement,'' said Gasol, whose team's 21-8 mark was just a half game better than Miami's 21-9 entering the Heat's game Thursday at Phoenix. "Even though it's early you still want to make sure you beat this team and not the other way around.''
With some fans are trying to sell courtside seats for upwards of $10,000, guard Derek Fisher vows the Lakers will give "our best effort.''
"That's what our fans deserve,'' Fisher said. "The ones that, at least from what I'm hearing, are paying premium prices, we're going to go out and do our job to make sure they get their money's worth.''
One assumes fans won't also get foam hands for the price of admission, but a win no doubt would be appreciated. That's especially after Tuesday, when the Lakers were embarrassed 98-79 at home by injury-riddled Milwaukee.
"I thought (the Lakers') comeuppance might come against Miami,'' Jackson said. "But Milwaukee lowered the blow. Maybe it got (the players') attentions so they can get focused on basketball.''
As to how much the loss to the Bucks got Bryant's attention, that's not fully clear. Bryant, who was ejected late in that game and didn't speak to reporters afterward, declined again to talk with the media Thursday after the Lakers had taken Wednesday off.
Jackson was pleased with Thursday's practice. It featured the team, which recently got center Andrew Bynum back after he missed the first one and a half months following knee injury, having its full cast together for an substantial practice for the first time this season.
And even though Jackson earlier this week complained about how the NBA shouldn't play games on Christmas, he wasn't grumbling as much about it Thursday. While not agreeing with Gasol that it's a "statement'' game, Jackson did say, "It's a Christmas Day game. So go out there and play and play hard and enjoy the day after it's over.''
Perhaps even Jackson, who has coached 11 of the Lakers' 12 straight Christmas games, will got sentimental afterward. Jackson, who says this likely will be his final season of coaching, was asked what he plans to be doing Dec. 25, 2011.
"I want to go to Christmas Island on Christmas,'' he said. "Either that or Christmas, Mich.''
Jackson is just 4-6 in Christmas outings with the Lakers. But his players seem focused enough to send him to a speck in the Indian Ocean or to Michigan's Upper Peninsula with a win in perhaps his final Christmas game.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson