Wednesday December 24th, 2008

The annual Dec. 25 nationally televised game has turned into the Kobe Bryant Christmas Day Special. We have watched him grow up in this venue while playing a variety of roles -- as Shaquille O'Neal's sidekick as well as his divorced rival; as a villain and then the redemptive star; as defender of the championship or its underdog pursuer. And now we find Bryant at 30 as the reigning MVP and Olympic hero, inviting the champion Celtics to his home court for the first reunion since they humbled his Lakers by 39 points to close out the NBA Finals six months ago.

Across the long winter season this has been the one event that sparkles, the one must-see game on the NBA schedule.

As ever, Bryant is cast as a singular figure -- in this case needing to assemble his younger Lakers to overcome the awesome teamwork of the Celtics, who arrive with a franchise-best winning streak of 19 games and an NBA-record 27-2 start. The Celtics rank first in field-goal defense (at 42.0 percent) while surrendering 91.4 points per game (second only to the Cavaliers) in continuation of the long-term trend that stifled Bryant and his teammates in the Finals.

Just last month the Lakers were viewed by many around the league as the superior team, based on a 14-1 start fueled by tough defense of their own. But lately they've gone 9-4 while holding their opponents to fewer than 100 points in only four games.

"The Lakers have been struggling big-time on the defensive end,'' Magic Johnson said this week in his role as ESPN analyst. "The Lakers have to prove to the Celtics and to themselves that they can handle the physical play of the Celtics.''

One obvious mistake would be to doubt Bryant's ability to galvanize the Lakers for this game. It doesn't matter that they've had a hard time against the Pacers, the Heat and even the Grizzlies. The Lakers are more than talented and inspired enough to stop the Celtics.

In fact, millions of casual viewers will be hoping the Celtics have themselves a difficult afternoon and that the game goes down to the final minutes, which in turn will increase anticipation of another Boston-L.A. Finals (so long as LeBron James or Tim Duncan don't intrude).

The winner and loser will both look to minimize the importance of the result.

"After the game is over, it's just another game of 82,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But before the game starts, it will have more significance than a regular game, obviously.''

Another mistake would be to assume that these early-season trends will be maintained through June. Pau Gasol hasn't played a full season with the Lakers, and he's only 28 games into his frontcourt partnership with fellow 7-footer Andrew Bynum. The Lakers can take heart in coach Phil Jackson's methodical approach to team-building, and that they have more upside to explore over the new year than the Celtics.

"I don't think about it much, honestly,'' Rivers said of the renewal of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. "Every interview someone brings up the Lakers, but I don't think coaches by nature think in those terms. People are getting tired of me saying it, but we just have to keep improving and getting better. My focus isn't on the Lakers at all, because for us to do what we did last year, we've got to be better.

"Now, having said all of that,'' he summarized, "when you hear the Celtics and the Lakers and all of the people talking about it, yes, I do think it's really cool.''

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