As much as they'd rather play on any other day but Christmas, the Lakers have been looking forward to the visit of the Miami Heat. The defending champs have been gliding through the league's easiest schedule, elevating past third gear every now and then while starting the season 21-8. They've been a team in need of a challenge, and now here comes one.
For Miami, this is a much bigger game. The Heat's biggest win has come at Utah (in payback for an earlier loss at home to the Jazz) and in their October home opener against the flawed Magic, who, a month later in Orlando, smoked Miami before they decided to overhaul their roster with a couple of recent trades.
Miami is 0-3 against title contenders -- having lost twice to Boston and then at home Monday to Dallas to end a 12-game winning streak that appeared to be signaling their rise among the elite. A win on the court of the back-to-back champions in front of the largest TV audience of the season would say much about Miami's growth since its troubling 9-8 start.
The advantage for the Lakers -- an advantage shared by the Celtics, Mavericks and league-leading Spurs -- is their ability to win at any speed. While the Lakers rank sixth with 105.5 points per game (more prolific than the up-tempo Thunder, Raptors and Warriors), the Heat aren't nearly so versatile offensively. Their lack of productive size around the basket combined with their clunky inexperience in half-court sets suggests they'll likely have to push the ball in transition in order to make the most of their three stars. Yet ,they've had trouble pushing the tempo against the best opponents, as demonstrated by their average of 94.3 points in those losses to Boston and Dallas.
The best way to keep Miami out of transition will be for the Lakers to exploit their superior size and toughness. A half-court priority will be feeding Andrew Bynum and their other big men in the post in order to force LeBron to double-team. "Bynum will be down there all of the time, and Miami has no one who can handle him," said the scout. "If the Lakers don't force LeBron to help defend in the post, then he gets to roam defensively and that's when he causes all kinds of problems."
Expect Ron Artest, Matt Barnes and Bynum to be rough with James. "He doesn't like to be knocked down, and when you do that to him his game changes," said the scout, insisting that James turns into a jump shooter when defenses turn physical. "That's why the Wizards used to play Cleveland so tough, because when LeBron would go into the paint, Brendan Haywood would knock him on his butt. Caron Butler would knock him down, too, and he didn't like that."
This could also be another prominent setting for Derek Fisher, who tends to become prominent in big games. The Heat tried to sign Fisher last summer, and they have no equivalent threat at point guard to make big plays when the defense rotates away.
James figures to out-produce Artest at small forward, but otherwise the Lakers should be favored in every matchup, including bench play and the coaching expertise of Phil Jackson. The most interesting matchup will involve Dwyane Wade, who can inspire confidence among his teammates by taking it to Kobe Bryant. Good luck to Wade: The Lakers have been pacing themselves through the early season, which should leave Bryant ready to respond. He has to have looked forward to putting the visitors in their place. Instead of Bryant's pursuit of ring No. 6, the big preseason story was Miami's recruitment of two top free agents who have yet to win a championship.
Based on the opening months, a Finals rematch with Boston appears more likely for the Lakers than a challenge next June by Miami. But the Heat rank No. 1 in field-goal defense (42.4 percent), they've been improving month by month and now they're working shooter Mike Miller back into the rotation after he missed he missed the entire start to the season with a thumb injury on his shooting hand. Will this game be nothing more than a forgettable event? Or will the Heat use this setting to show the Lakers and other contenders that James, Wade and Bosh can create their own version of a championship triangle?
Miami will break through against a top team eventually. But on this Christmas day, I like the Lakers.
Larry Brown, you have been a pain in the rear to just about every team that's ever hired you. They keep hiring you because few coaches are better than you. You are to your business what Stanley Kubrick was to his.
If it's another job you want -- and I'm sure you do -- you may not get to be picky. Say there's a full-blown lockout: The next full season may not launch until you're 72. Though 72 for you is like 58 for anyone else.
Phil Jackson, there is nothing you can do. The NBA is the third-most lucrative professional sports league in the U.S., and these Christmas Day games have become a rare niche for pro basketball on the crowded sports calendar. It's not like you're alone here: I can't think of a business that isn't pushing aggressively these days, regardless of employee sacrifice.
Next year, Christmas will be celebrated on an NFL Sunday, so maybe there won't be room for NBA games that day. Then again, there may be an NFL lockout that will open up the day for the NBA. Or there may be an NBA lockout that will shut down the Lakers and every other team. Or you may choose to retire, as planned, which will entitle you to spend Christmas as you please -- unless, of course, you become a TV commentator and wind up covering a Christmas Day game.
Otis Smith, here's all I can think of for you: As GM of the Magic you can hope that the Trail Blazers plummet so fast that they're willing to surrender Marcus Camby. You can try to take Chris Kaman off the hands of the Clippers. Or you can make a run at Boris Diaw and DeSagana Diop of the Bobcats. Apart from that, you're on your own.
"My story was like anybody else's story when I was a kid. My mom and my stepdad, they did the best they could with us, but it was tough for them.
"To this day Shaq remembers me from when he was in Orlando. They used to practice at the downtown rec center and that was my neighborhood right there. I was coming home from school, I was like 12 or 13, and everybody was running up to him trying to get his autograph. And I used to hold back and talk bad to him [playfully], and he used to say, 'You're going to ask me for my autograph one day.' He still jokes to me about that, he's like, 'Man, I can't believe that was you.'
"But Shaq and Dennis Scott and all of those guys used to come through all the time and give us tickets to the games. I used to look up at those guys and it was like, man, they're tall, they're big. You don't get to see much like that when you're a kid, and back then Shaq and Dennis Scott were interacting with the neighborhood. They had their music playing loud after practice and they were there for kids to see.
"My mom was always super-giving. Now I give her stuff, and I'll be like, 'Mom, where is it?' And she's like, 'Well, I had to help those other people ...' She gives it away. She's always trying to help others. I remember some nights when I was growing up and she'd go without eating. I'd say, 'Mom, I know you didn't eat.' She'd be like, 'No, it's OK.' Just seeing her go through stuff, I wanted to be in this position to go back and help and be able to do the same things she was doing.
"I've just come to realize that my mom has the trait of sickle cell also. It was something I needed to find out more about, because with my daughter having a trait of it, it means she can't date anybody who has a trait of it because there's a chance that the baby -- if they have a baby -- will have a full trait of it. My wife's younger brother has a full trait of it and I've seen him have some crises: The first time he broke down, he was crying and he was locked up stiffer than cardboard, and they had to give him morphine and a transfusion. It's a disease that goes unnoticed, so I want to spread the word and help people be aware of it. A lot of people may have symptoms of it and don't even know -- they may have aching bones and think it's tendinitis or arthritis, but it could be a symptom of a trait of sickle cell if your joints lock up on you. It's an epidemic that affects the black community.
"But my daughter's good, she hasn't had any symptoms. She's in her little diva state right now, she thinks she's Princess Tiara. She and my son, they want everything they see on TV [for Christmas]. My son is 2 and he thinks he's [Rajon] Rondo. Every time I come home he's got his headband on, like, 'I'm Rondo, I'm Rondo!' I'm like, what about me?"
(On Christmas Eve in downtown Orlando -- the day before the Celtics play the Magic -- Daniels' foundation will partner with Kmart Kares and Little Caesars Pizza to host a holiday event providing bicycles, gift cards and pizza to single-parent mothers and their families who have children affected by sickle cell anemia.)
"The guys that you worry about are guys you've never played against, that's the toughest thing. I'm trying to think of a good young wing player -- I don't think I'll guard him, but John Wall, I've never been on the court with him before. A guy like Granger or LeBron or Kobe -- not that you can stop these guys necessarily, but at least you know some of their tendencies, you know what you've had success with them before, and it's a chess match. You've got to figure things out. Granger's a guy who can get hot so you just never want him to get an open look, kind of jam him, he does a lot of movement. Rose is a guy who wants to get into the paint. So it's understanding tendencies and just trying to do the best you can with different people.
"When I was in Detroit, because I did so much with the ball offensively, I didn't necessarily guard the other team's best player. One of the things that was interesting back then was I had the ball so much that sometimes the best defense was good offense. I remember if I played against a Glen Rice or a Big Dog [Glenn Robinson], my mentality was I need to make them work on defense and, if I could, get two fouls on them early. You had to compete on the defensive end but you also had the advantage of doing whatever you wanted on offense."
"I agree with any player who says he wishes we didn't play on Christmas. But we do and it's just part of our business. I think we know that when we sign our contracts, and we all sign on, and the fact that you guys are going to be there too makes it that much better." Then he had a good laugh.
"I'm just trying to work as I did before, and just trying to play basketball and not worry about all the other stuff. That's all I have in my head. I'm not chasing anything, I'm not trying to prove people wrong, I'm just trying to play basketball and whatever happens, happens."
The "other stuff" refers to the original curse of his entry to the NBA as the No. 2 pick of the 2003 draft. He was chosen by the Pistons ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Chris Kaman and Kirk Hinrich -- the next five picks in a famed class headed by LeBron James. Among them Milicic stood out like Christian Laettner in the company of the 1992 Dream Team.
The idea of a "draft" was entirely foreign to Milicic, who, as a 14-year-old, moved 100 miles from his home of Novi Sad, Serbia, to become a semi-professional basketball player for KK Hemofarm in the town of Vrsac. At an age when most Americans are still in junior high, he was living alone in an apartment and practicing basketball in the mornings and evenings with a full day of school in between. In return, he received room, board and $100 a month, much of which he sent home to his parents.
"I was the youngest player on the team, and most of the time in the apartment I was either talking on the phone with my family or watching TV," Milicic told me in 2003 via an interpreter from his apartment in Vrsac as he looked ahead to the draft. "I think this move was much more difficult than the move I will be making next year to the NBA."
Little did he know. Though Milicic averaged 7.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in two years with the senior team at Hemofarm, the Pistons gambled their high pick on his potential to dominant athletically around both baskets. Their mistake doomed him: He was never going to live up to his introduction as a No. 2 pick, and as he moved from Detroit to Orlando to New York he was viewed as a bust.
The decision by Minnesota GM David Kahn to re-sign Milicic this past July at relatively short money -- the average starting center in the league is earning almost twice as much as Milicic's current $4.3 million salary -- is paying off quietly. After shooting 14 percent over the opening two weeks of the season, Milicic has recovered to shoot 43.6 percent from the floor so far this season while averaging 22.0 points over a three-game stretch in late November.
"Here it's more serious than it was at home," said Milicic. "Here you've got to find a way to go out there every night and play. I used to play every third game, that's how I used to do it. But I can't do that. I'm still not there, and it's not going to happen overnight."
It was not so long ago that Milicic admitted to thinking about a return to Europe or a career other than basketball. But he's only 25, and there could yet be a long-term role for him in a league that needs size as badly as baseball needs left-handed pitching.
On the same date one year ago, players had received 217 technicals (not including eight that were rescinded). Altogether, approximately one extra technical per day has been assessed to players in the first season of the league's new ruling in which players will be penalized for overreacting to foul calls.
Here are the current league leaders in technical fouls:
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando 11