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Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

Lakers, Heat ready for showdown

LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson haven't really checked out the Miami Heat much this season. They've caught late-night highlights and maybe logged a few minutes with a game from the opposite coast, but not a whole lot more.

News photo
Heat is on: Kobe Bryant, seen against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, and the Los Angeles Lakers have a date with the Miami Heat on Christmas Day. AP PHOTO

It's finally time for the two-time defending champions to get an up-close look at their most intriguing challengers.

When LeBron James, Chris Bosh and — maybe — Dwyane Wade take on the Lakers in the NBA's Christmas showcase Saturday, most players in both uniforms hesitate to pile any extra significance onto a television-manufactured event. Most minimize every aspect of it, saying it's no more than a holiday amusement for fans seeking a break from present-opening and eggnog-drinking.

"I don't think it's a measuring stick for us," James said. "It's just another game."

Yet competitiveness usually trumps Christmas for elite NBA players. Just ask Bryant — or don't, since he tellingly hasn't spoken to the media since getting ejected from the Lakers' last game.

Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher concede both teams are anticipating the marquee matchup as a chance to gauge their readiness for bigger games in the months to come. And if they eventually face each other in June for the biggest prize of all, even better.

"The personalities that are going to be matching up in this game, I don't know if it can get any bigger," said Fisher, the Lakers point guard who entertained free-agent interest from Miami last summer.

Fisher believes the NBA's impressive TV ratings and overall increased spotlight this season can be traced largely to these two franchises and the Boston Celtics. All three boast oversized personalities, compelling team dynamics and remarkable success this season, but the Lakers haven't yet played either foe.

In fact, L.A. has monitored Miami's development with interest more suited to casual fans than potential rivals.

"The dynamic players that they have, as a fan of the game, it makes it easy to watch," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said.

The NBA has waited seven years for a playoff matchup between Bryant and James. James' Cavaliers beat the Lakers on Christmas last year in a game punctuated by foam hands thrown onto the Staples Center court by frustrated fans, but Cleveland couldn't get out of the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, leading to James' departure.

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A recap of Saturday's bj-league games is featured on The Japan Times' website.

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