(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

I don’t mean to make this all about Kobe, but this Christmas Day theme has kind of become an NBAMate tradition (2007, 2008) so we might as well run with it. I missed the first quarter of this game because I was sleeping – seriously, do the NBA schedulers give any thought to the millions of Aussies tuning in who need to wake up early on Boxing Day? FFS!!

So the Cavaliers shocked everyone and whooped the Lakers butts. A great result for the NBA in general – the Lakers at least looking a little more mortal. We got to see Kobe vs Lebron, which as I’ve said before, might only happen another 5-10 times in our lives. We got to see Shaq return to his former home and the countless sub-plots and stories resulting from it (Kobe vs Shaq, Bynum vs Shaq, Lakers fans vs Shaq). And of course we got a glimpse in to what may be a 2010 Finals preview.

So why then, was this game so freaking hard to watch?

It was without doubt the worst Christmas Day basketball game I’ve seen in recent memory. Both superstars were a little off-target, the officiating was laughable, the crowd was embarrassing, there were far too many stoppages, and the game itself wasn’t nearly close enough to keep a mutual fan excited. But when I turned off my TV and took a few seconds to absorb everything I had just seen, I realised it was probably the most memorable Christmas Day game I’d ever watched. Here’s what I learned.

  • Mike Wilbon’s half-time explanation for the Cavs dominance really was spot-on. “They just shot the lights out”. You could try and slice and dice this game a million ways, but really, the Cavs won because they took high percentage shots (Jamario Moon bank-shots excluded) and made most of them. Mo Williams continued his great shooting form (has shot 50+ percent and at least three treys in his last three games), Shaq was given the ball in spots where he can’t miss, and Lebron (more on him later), despite not having a great shooting night by his standards, picked his spots beautifully. The Cavs ended up shooting 54.3% to the Lakers 36.5%. That kind of disparity will win you games 100% of the time in the NBA.
  • The officiating in this game was absolutely horrible, and the main reason this game was so excruciating to watch. Yeah there were a few non-calls on Kobe and he should have had another 6-10 FTs (not that it would have affected the outcome), but that’s not what bothered me. What bothered me was the stupid calls and complete lack of control over this game. Stupid calls like players running into one another (Lebron got whistled on one for running through D-Fish, Kobe did the same to Mo Williams and there was no call). Stupid calls like soft reach-ins when they’re letting people man-handle each other under the rim. And when things got fiery between the teams and the Staples Center threatened to implode, the refs were standing around trying to talk sense into everyone instead of the old-school “get the fuck out of my way… move the fuck over here… I’m T’ing you up, get the fuck out of my stadium” approach that the game desperately needed. There was a two-minute patch where this game was a complete and utter disgrace, players wandering around mouthing off at each other, the crowd throwing shit onto the floor (rest assured, the Staples Center crowd is getting a bullet point for themselves). It had the potential to turn into another Palace Brawl – it really did – and I partly blame the refs for letting things get so out of hand.
  • Pau Gasol today reverted into the early 2008 Pau Gasol when everyone questioned his toughness and mental resolve. I don’t know if he’s injured or sick, but he sure looked like it today. Gasol’s worst game of the season wasn’t really what Kobe wanted for Christmas, especially against a team I thought he was so primed to dominate. And how bout that Andrew Bynum? One of my personal highlights from this game was the two minute patch at the start of the fourth quarter where Shaq absolutely schooled Andrew Bynum in the post. Shaq’s power and finesse might have faded, but he still has those moves, in particular a gorgeous drop-step that had Bynum bamboozled. Of the many wonderful surprises Kobe got for Christmas this year, this would be the one that hurts – the fact a 37-year old Shaq can still dominate your starting center. Ouch.
  • When I see performances from Mo Williams like today’s, the first thought that pops into my head is “where were you in the ECFs pal?”. No matter how many great regular season games I see from Mo, they cannot erase the memories I have of him failing dismally when it counted most, and then trying to sheepishly answer questions after Lebron’s Game 6 storm-off. I know, this is unfair, but I just cannot shake it. Props to Mo for being without doubt today’s MVP (28 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds) and I just know Lebron will end up saying something in the press conference like “that’s just Mo, that’s what he does, he’s been doing it all along”. Except he hasn’t been doing it all along, and that’s why I reserve the right to diss Mo unapologetically until May.
  • Kobe Bryant failed to read this game properly, which is not something I say very often. He looked to get bailed out by the refs too often, only on this night they weren’t going to help him. Instead of then putting the onus on his teammates to make shots, Kobe put the onus on the officials by continuing to barrel to the rim. It was almost like Kobe said “hey refs, I’m going to put the game in your hands, you start blowing that whistle and we start getting back in the game”. I didn’t like that approach, and it completely threw Kobe off his game. Kobe complains to officials more than 95% of the players in the league, but tonight he may have set a record for most disgusted looks and both-hands-in-the-air expressions of disbelief. As a fan watching from 10,000 miles away it annoyed the shit out of me, so I can only imagine how the refs felt 10 feet away. Sure Kobe’s numbers looked good (35-9-8), but tonight he should have had 5-6 more assists and 10 less shots – that’s what the game was giving him, only Kobe wasn’t willing to take it. 
  • Having said that, it was hella fun watching Kobe hound Lebron over those final few minutes. Some might say it was a meaningless show of individual bravado when the game had already been decided, but I love that shit. That’s what I watch games for, to see the best players in the world go at each other. For me, watching Kobe play defense like that is almost as enjoyable as watching him when he’s on fire at the offensive end. No one defends like that in the NBA. Notice Lebron barely got past the three point line when Kobe was defending him on those final plays. Coach Van Gundy called it on the broadcast, “that’s what separates Bryant from everyone else”. The thought of seeing a bloodthirsty Kobe defend Lebron in the Finals is too positively delicious to ignore.
  • To the Staples Center crowd, seriously, you guys are lame. Throwing stuff on the court, even if it’s “harmless” foam props, is the pinnacle of sore-loserdom. According to some Twitterers, the mayhem continued after the game outside Staples, which doesn’t really surprise me.
  • Classless” was the word that came to mind in describing tonight’s Lakers antics. Classless fans, the classless retaliation of D-Fish (his shove on Mo Williams was so blatant and undisguised that I laughed out loud), and the constant classless abuse directed at the referees. I thought it was incredibly ironic, because “classless” is a word I have used to describe the Cavaliers a lot over the past couple of seasons. Their juvenile pre-game antics, Lebron’s recent dancing controversy, Lebron’s walk-off in the ECFs without shaking hands or addressing the media. Isn’t it funny how tonight everything was twisted around the other way? Lebron and the Cavs handled themselves professionally and admirably while the Lakers made complete asses of themselves. The Cavs had so many opportunities in this game to play up to the crowd, to bump chests, to dance, to carry on like the circus clowns they too often are. But they didn’t. Even with Shaq (the goofiest of them all) embarrassing the Lakers in his former house of glory, they still managed to keep a lid on it all. It’s the little things like that I notice, and tonight I loved all the little things I saw from the Cavs.
  • And then there’s Lebron. By his remarkable standards, a sub-par game – 26 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 9-19 shooting, 7 turnovers. But you know what? This might be my favourite Lebron game of all-time. For so many reasons. He set the tone early for his team and made it clear this wasn’t going to be a dominant Lebron performance and that Kobe vs Lebron was irrelevant– he needed his teammates tonight, he wanted them to succeed (I didn’t get this feeling watching Kobe). When the Lakers made their run late in the second quarter and Kobe looked ready to explode offensively, he didn’t panic and felt no need to respond individually. Despite Ron Artest continuously shoving and prodding him and trying to get in his head, he never retaliated and kept his cool (Artest fouled out in this game, in other words, epic fail by Ron). As I mentioned above, even when the Cavs were enjoying a 20-point lead, Lebron never let the inner clown surface. There was no hollering, no fancy celebrations, hell the dude didn’t even smile all game (the little things). Then there was my favourite Lebron moment:
  • On one play late late in the fourth with the Lakers trying to mount a furious rally, Kobe was physically harassing Lebron on the perimeter. He was right in his grill and dancing around violently like a Rottweiler on crack. I was uncomfortable just watching it. But Lebron? He wasn’t fazed. The gaze of millions of fans screaming “OMG IT’S  KOBE ON LEBRON!!” didn’t seem to register for him. He kept his eyes on the play, protected the ball, and threw a perfect pass to Mo in the corner who drained the three and absolutely killed the Lakers crowd. Go watch that play again. Really, it is the epitome of Kobe vs Lebron – Kobe narrowing his focus to individually dominate his opponent and working 110% in the process, Lebron seeing all his teammates and effortlessly making the right play, the unselfish play.
  • When the Staples Center crowd turned feral Lebron ushered his guys in to a circle, mouthing some words of wisdom to keep them focused. Most of the Lakers players were still finding excuses to argue with the officials, the crowd still going nuts. But everything in Lebron’s world was under control. That is probably the best way I can described Lebron’s performance today – “in control”. He was in complete control of this game from start to finish, it really was a masterful performance without being overly dominant. The kind of intangible omnipresence on a game that an aging MJ exuded in spades, and that Kobe had only recently mastered. It extended all the way to the post-game on-court interview, where Lebron looked about as unexcited as you could possibly imagine. No third person references, no self-glorification, not one whiff of ego. In other words, everything I’ve ever asked for of Lebron over the past few years. The little things.

These are the things I pay attention to, the kind of things that shake the very foundations of favouritism or dislike I have for pro athletes. I am not normally impressed by the superhuman feats of Lebron James – his highlight reel plays just don’t resonate with me like others do. I don’t give a crap about Lebron James’ numbers or how close he’ll come to averaging a triple-double – I ain’t no stat-geek and I don’t play fantasy NBA.

I do care about the little things, how players respond to the challenge, the signs they are maturing, how they deal with winning and losing, how they stand firm in the eye of the hurricane and whether they grab hold of their teammates. It was those little things that Lebron gift-wrapped for Kobe today, and that’s what makes this Christmas Day so memorable for me.

Even if the highlight-watchers and stat-geeks think they came away empty handed.

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