- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Just in time for Christmas, here comes the matchup that was on the NBA’s wish list in June.

The Kobe Bryant-LeBron James showdown didn’t pan out last season, but now it arrives in Hollywood with the addition of basketball’s biggest supporting actor: Shaquille O’Neal, formerly Bryant’s teammate and now James’ sidekick.

The Cleveland Cavaliers visit the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day, claiming top billing on a five-game schedule. And while the meeting is loaded with subplots, it also comes with a question: Could this really be an NBA Finals preview?

“Without a doubt. Definitely,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “They’re going to be an elite team. They got off to a slow start, they had some issues with new personnel to blend in and they’re going to start playing well. Too talented a team not to pay attention to.”

But while Jackson’s team leaves no doubt of its championship potential, Cleveland has been ordinary too often - more hype than hope - for some critics. Charles Barkley essentially pronounced the Cavaliers dead two weeks ago on TNT, saying there “are only two dogs in that [Eastern Conference] race. Orlando and Boston are by far the best two teams in the East.”

What about that, LeBron?

“It’s too early,” James said. “Boston, Orlando are playing well. Miami’s played great at times. There are a lot of good teams. We’re happy we’re in the position we are. There’s a long way to go until it all shakes out.”

The season is nearly two months old, but Christmas is traditionally when the NBA makes its first big splash. The league and ESPN are heavily promoting the Cavaliers-Lakers game, which follows Boston at Orlando on ABC.

New York opens the schedule with its return to Christmas competition by hosting the Heat. The Los Angeles Clippers visit Phoenix later Friday before Northwest Division rivals Denver and Portland meet in the nightcap. It’s the second straight year the NBA has staged five games on Dec. 25, the most it has scheduled on the holiday.

The Knicks will be decked out in green jerseys for their league-high 45th appearance on the holiday, having played in the first set of Christmas games in 1947. The Trail Blazers will try to improve the NBA’s best Christmas winning percentage, having gone 13-2 so far.

Still, the most attention goes to the biggest names - Bryant, James and O’Neal.

The defending champion Lakers returned from a five-game road trip with a 22-4 record, looking like a heavy favorite to get back to the finals for the third straight season. Even with Bryant nursing a broken finger, they appear even stronger than the team that overwhelmed Orlando in five games in June.

Cleveland improved to 21-8 by handing Phoenix its first home loss with a 109-91 rout Monday, a dominant performance on both ends of the floor that was a reminder of how good the Cavaliers can be.

“Contrary to what anybody may think, to get to the Eastern Conference championships, you are going to have to go through Cleveland at some point,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.

Yet the Cavaliers were only good enough for fourth place in the East behind Boston, Orlando and Atlanta after that win. Their mediocre road play, occasional offensive droughts and lack of productivity from O’Neal may be reason enough to question them.

Nobody doubted the Cavaliers last season, when they posted a league-best 66-16 record behind James’ MVP campaign. But Orlando beat them in the East finals, wrecking what could have been a highly anticipated series against Bryant and the Lakers.

Cleveland responded by trading for O’Neal and adding Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, but the newcomers’ numbers are down from last season - especially O’Neal’s. It was telling that he spent the entire fourth quarter Monday on the bench while the Cavaliers were breaking open a close game against the Suns.

His 10.3 points per game and 50.3 mark from the field are by far career lows, and he can be a liability on the defensive end with his lack of quickness.

“I said it when the trade was made, I didn’t think that it made them a better basketball team because I didn’t think it solved their problems,” ABC analyst Mark Jackson said. “To me, their problem was wing play, their problem was inability to defend the pick-and-roll, and that’s why they got eliminated by the Orlando Magic - and Shaq did not answer those problems.

“I don’t think that the Cavaliers have that type of player, and that’s their biggest problem as far as I’m concerned, and that’s why I don’t think they’re a better basketball team. They’re a disaster waiting to happen.”

Jeff Van Gundy, who will work with Jackson and Mike Breen on Friday’s telecast, said Boston has been the East’s best but insisted the Cavaliers are still finals material. He said he believes O’Neal proved his value when he got Dwight Howard in foul trouble in Cleveland’s victory at Orlando last month.

“This idea that they have to make some tremendous jump in play I think is a little bit overstated,” he said. “I just think they have to play a little bit better.”

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