This isn't LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant, but that likely wouldn't have been all that great anyway. The Los Angeles Lakers went 2-4 with Bryant in the lineup before his tibial plateau fracture, the star trying to work himself back into rhythm and his teammates trying to adjust to his presence. This Christmas Day matchup lost some of its luster last Thursday when the Lakers announced that Bryant would be out for six weeks, but it would have been hard to imagine that team giving the Miami Heat much of a challenge.
It's still not easy to envision a Los Angeles victory. Miami sometimes lets teams stick around, sure, but on this stage, you expect the the two-time defending champs to take care of business. Though the Lakers have beaten the Clippers, Warriors and Rockets this season, upsetting the Heat is the tallest of orders.
Meet the Heat
Miami enters this game having won five straight and 17 of its last 20 games. It has needed late-game heroics to squeak by the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks in some of those. It has also blown out those same Magic and Bobcats, plus the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings. The Heat might be better than they were last season, but it's hard to tell. They've only truly been tested by the Indiana Pacers, losing on the road and winning at home.
It's almost boring to talk about James and Miami's excellence at this juncture. The Heat have the league's second-best offense and eighth-best defense, per Basketball-Reference, and James should again be the frontrunner for MVP. Despite averaging career lows of 15.6 field goal attempts and 35.7 minutes per game, James is averaging 25.4 points to go along with his 6.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists. He continues to improve despite his impossible standards, raising his field goal percentage to .599 and his three-point percentage to .417. Running mate Dwyane Wade is also having his most efficient year of his life. Three weeks shy of his 32nd birthday, Wade is fresh off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
Meet the Lakers
As long as you get over the fact that these Lakers are far from contenders, this group is pretty fun. When Dwight Howard left town, the circus left with him. That isn't to say that Los Angeles is better without him -- it most certainly is not -- but aside from the endless backcourt injuries and some minor gripes from Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, there hasn't been a lot of drama here.
Outside of Bryant's six games, the Lakers have been a .500 team, which is better than most of us expected. Gasol has struggled overall but looked much better lately, including a 21-point, 13-rebound, 8-assist, 2-block effort in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves last Friday. Nick Young came off the bench to score 25 points on 14 shots in that game, and he's capable of doing that kind of thing on any night. While it's depressing every time you remember that Bryant and Steve Nash are on this team, there's enjoyment to be found in watching guys like Young, Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson remind you what Mike D'Antoni's running and gunning system can do for role players.
When: Dec. 25, 5 p.m. ET
Where: Los Angeles, CA, Staples Center
How to watch: ABC