By: Eric Pincus
The Los Angeles Lakers host the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day. It's the first rematch since the NBA Finals - but that story has been written many times over.
The Celtics are riding an impressive 19-game win streak - one the Lakers would take great pride in ending. At 27-2, Boston may be even better than they were last year - despite losing forward James Posey to the New Orleans Hornets. Point guard Rajon Rondo has matured and the Celtics haven't missed a step defensively.
The Lakers are coming off a big victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night. While the 23-5 record has LA just 3 1/2 games behind the Celtics - the Lakers' recent play is cause for concern.
LA has been somewhat fractured by a confusing defensive system that involves trapping and zoning. Teams around the league have had time to scout it out and the Lakers are giving up 100 points a game nightly.
It doesn't hurt that they lead the league at 107 points a night, with a third highest point differential of 9.5 a game. The concern is when teams like the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Miami HEAT are able to take it to the Lakers - when the Celtics aren't giving an inch to anyone.
Before barely overcoming the Memphis Grizzlies - and then dominating the Hornets - the Lakers were a mess. It took multiple team and player meetings for the Lakers to regain composure. How well it sticks will be evident on the holiday.
One of Coach Phil Jackson's goals for the season was the best record in the league - leading to home court advantage in the NBA Finals.
The gap between the Celtics and Lakers has been obvious recently for any number of reasons. Point guards Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar (now out two months with knee injury) have struggled to stay in front of their men. At small forward, neither Luke Walton nor Vladimir Radmanovic is a particularly capable defender. Bench leader (?) Lamar Odom has been zoning out more than in. Center Andrew Bynum has struggled to reclaim his pre-injury game - often sitting early with foul trouble. The guards aren't going inside enough to the bigs. The perimeter defenders are gambling too often for steals - breaking the team concept.
It's a pretty lengthy laundry list for a team with a 23-5 record but no one on the Lakers will claim they're currently playing at the level that they expect from themselves.
Before the Lakers make any roster changes - even with Farmar sidelined - Boston will be a true test to see if LA has the strength to unite, despite their flaws.
The Lakers have one player - and only one - who can truly make a difference . . . reigning MVP Kobe Bryant.
Simply put - LA needs more out of their star.
Bryant has said many times that the only way for the Lakers to overtake the Celtics is to be a powerful defensive unit.
Kobe is a regular First Team All-Defense member and one of the best on the ball defenders in the league.
He alone on the Lakers has the ability to raise the team from also ran to champion.
His ability to score is unquestioned but as he, himself, has said many times - points are not an issue. LA can put up big numbers whether or not Bryant is taking the bulk of the shots.
At times they falter and will turn to him in times of need for a score - considering his unparalleled talent, Kobe is often the team's greatest asset offensively.
Where the Lakers need to improve is on the other end of the floor.
It's been players like John Salmons (Sacramento), Jameer Nelson (Orlando) or All-Star Dwyane Wade (Miami) slicing into the guts of LA's scattered defense that has knocked the Lakers down a notch.
What LA needs to hear from their star in response is, "I got this."
This request is not a slight towards Bryant but rather a credit. He has the talent, the ability and the tenacity - his efforts just need to be redirected.
Bryant's defensive skills were on display this summer with Team USA. Kobe can't afford to save his energy solely for the offensive end like in years past - when the team needed 30-40 points a night from their start to be competitive.
If Bryant can reduce the efficiency of the opposing star by a meager 10% drop-off in efficiency - the Lakers simply aren't going to lose. One more stop in each game would have been enough to beat the Pacers, HEAT and Magic. Other than the loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers should be 27-1 facing the Celtics on Thursday.
That's not to put the blame on Kobe (there's certainly enough to go around) but he needs to be the difference moving forward. He needs to demoralize opponents by getting stops at the expense of their best player - not necessarily for 48 minutes but at key moments in the game when the Lakers are most vulnerable.
It may be a painful memory for Laker fans - but Boston's Paul Pierce was the one who emerged in the NBA Finals, telling teammates he wanted to take on Bryant defensively.
While he didn't stop Kobe - it became more of a challenge for Bryant to get his points - and that margin was enough for the Celtics to overtake the Lakers in a devastating Game 4 comeback.
Take a look at the meager numbers Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are putting up this season. Even if the Celtics win 70 games, it's unlikely any of the three will win NBA MVP.
Instead they've fully committed to stopping teams nightly . . .
To win - the Lakers need to do the same.
They need their best player - one who is among the best who ever played the game - to instill a pride in his team that they are going to shut everyone down, every single time.
He can't do it alone - each and every Laker needs to elevate their game to match. Perhaps there are weaknesses in the roster than only General Manager Mitch Kupchak can fix . . .
But if Kobe leads - they will follow. They will follow and get results.
Winning may not happen every single game - but that attitude will be the margin nine times out of 10. For the Celtics it's 9.3 out of 10.
The Lakers win about 8.2 out of 10 - which is good for third (we haven't even mentioned LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 24-4 record).
Isn't this year all about being number one - with a ring for the taking at the end of the journey?
Are Kobe and the Lakers up to the challenge?
Christmas is just a day away . . .