- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

Kobe Bryant hit another game-winning shot this week, the Celtics are ignoring their incriminating birth certificates and LeBron James remains in search of an upgraded supporting cast, if not a new venue, as the regular season moves beyond the one-quarter mark.

These truths envelop the three lead teams in the NBA, the Cavaliers the debatable ones of the group if anyone cares to debate the capacity of James to claim as his the waning minutes of a game.

Bryant and the Lakers have shown no hint of a post-championship hangover, their point differential a robust plus-8.2 and their opposition field goal percentage a league-best .425.

Their impeccable start came about with double-double purveyor Pau Gasol sidelined the first 11 games of the season. His absence underlined the depth of the Lakers and the purpose of Bryant, bent on adding another championship and eclipsing an old rival.

That would be Shaquille O’Neal, originally billed as the missing piece to James but now just missing.

The lumbering O’Neal is in the midst of posting career-low numbers in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.

That is not the sort of production the brain trust of the Cavaliers envisioned after accepting his fulsome contract in the offseason.

The warning signs were evident enough in Phoenix, where the Suns reduced their offense to a plod to accommodate O’Neal and missed the playoffs.

The Suns have reverted to who they were - an up-and-down team with no shooting conscience - and are on a 55-win pace.

O’Neal eventually may serve a function in Cleveland other than providing comedic breaks in the locker room. It is about the postseason, after all, the exercise until then just so much jockeying designed to sort out homecourt advantage.

If O’Neal could counter Dwight Howard to a point in the playoffs or expose Kendrick Perkins enough to warrant a second defender from the Celtics, Danny Ferry and the Cavaliers would have their justification.

The NBA would have what it wants, too, which is a James-Bryant showdown in June.

The Lakers do not appear beatable in the West, not by the defensively challenged Nuggets and certainly not the Mavericks.

The anticipated resurrection of the Spurs has not come about after their offseason acquisition of the once-soaring Richard Jefferson, now grounded in discomfort.

The championship drama is in the East, whether the Celtics or Cavaliers or even the Magic and Hawks.

The Celtics epitomize a selflessness that the NBA often lacks. That comes with the age of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who have enough individual accolades to satisfy their post-NBA lives and enough wisdom to rely on each other instead of their declining athletic gifts.

The question is whether the latter will be enough to sustain them in the postseason, when the fatigue of an interminable season saps even the strongest.

In their championship season of 2007-08, the Celtics endured two seven-game series, the one against the Cavaliers that would have ended in disappointment if not for the 41-point brilliance of Pierce in Game 7.

The Celtics are holding teams to a league-low 91.2 points a game, committing to a pugnacious style of play that lends itself to postseason success. Their prospects depend on preserving their essential elements. It was the breaking down of Garnett that triggered their demise last postseason.

Yet it is the Lakers who stand alone.

That is because of Bryant, who is showing no slippage in his 14th season. If anything, Bryant is expressing a greater efficiency to his game, as the combination of his experience, athletic gifts and skill merge into a colossal package.

He is shooting a career-high 48.5 percent even as he struggles from 3-point range. And there is something about his last-second propensity, which the Bucks fell victim to Wednesday night.

One possession. One shot. Game on the line.

No one in the NBA meets that challenge better than Bryant.

That is an additional reason to like the repeat chances of the Lakers.

• Tom Knott can be reached at tknott@washingtontimes.com.

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