LOS ANGELES -- It wasn’t just a Christmas game that first year. It was something so much bigger.
When the NBA schedules were released for that first season with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade together in Miami, the Heat’s Christmas Day game against the Lakers in Los Angeles instantly became the marquee event of the regular season. It was billed as a possible preview of an epic coast-to-coast NBA Finals series and, once Dec. 25, 2010, finally arrived, the buzz surrounding the game was evidenced by the ring of celebrities crammed around the arena’s floor.
On Wednesday, four years to the day after that memorable game, the Heat and Lakers return to Staples Center for another Christmas Day gift to the fans. But whereas that 2010 matchup was a gift-wrapped gem, this present seems more like a fruitcake.
Kobe Bryant was still in his prime in 2010. Now he won’t even be in uniform.
“The fans would’ve really looked forward to watching Kobe and LeBron go against each other — two of the top players in the NBA,” the Heat’s Rashard Lewis said.
What’s the saying? If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.
Whereas the Heat (21-6) is the NBA’s defending back-to-back champion and the biggest draw in the league, the Lakers (13-15) have a hard enough time winning back-to-back games these days. The lack of fan interest in the game since Bryant fractured his leg has been disheartening for the NBA, which, in addition to Bryant’s injury, is stumbling into its set of Christmas Day games with the majority of teams in the Eastern Conference mired in mediocrity.
Of the NBA’s five Christmas Day games, only two — Rockets-Spurs and Clippers-Warriors — will be between teams with winning records.
The lack of excitement for Wednesday’s games makes one long for Christmases past. Those were simpler times in 2010. Kanye West was courtside and hadn’t yet become an item with a Kardashian. Lamar Odom was on the court and still with a Kardashian. Snoop was there and he was still a Dogg. Now he’s Snoop Lion.
Ron Artest knew nothing of World Peace in 2010. He did, however, put James in a headlock during that Christmas Day game.
“I was in a WWE headlock,” James said after the game. “I was just trying to get out of it. I got a technical for just getting out of a headlock.”
Physical exchanges between the Heat and Lakers on Wednesday likely will be limited to high fives before the game and, maybe, pats on Bryant’s back afterward.
As far as controversies go, the only one — which seems to be more of a media-driven side story — is the idea that world-class, professional basketball players will somehow have trouble playing in sleeved jerseys. In its annual effort to sell more merchandise around the holidays, the NBA has made a tradition out of outfitting its players with “Christmas jerseys” for its Dec. 25 games. This year’s jerseys feature sleeves and large team logos on the chest.
They’re basically soccer jerseys, and the Heat practiced in uniforms similar to the Christmas Day attire in preparation for the game.
“We didn't want to get to Christmas Day and just be wearing them for the first time,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “You could have problems and malfunctions. We’re players of rhythm and we have to get used to the same thing or at least try them out. It’s like breaking in sneakers.”
The jerseys will look a little odd and there doesn’t seem to be much compelling about these Kobe-less Lakers, but the Heat’s players still plan on putting on a show. After all, Miami is 3-0 on Christmas since 2010, and James, despite that headlock, delivered a Christmas Day performance for the ages the last time he laced up his Christmas shoes in Staples Center.
With 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, James had the NBA’s first Christmas Day triple-double in 40 years.
“I'm a guy who loves to play on holidays,” James said. “I think it’s cool for the fans.”