Basketball is back, an advent of joy and celebration paralleled perfectly by the season of Christmas. And with the NBA season scheduled to start on Christmas day, it appears that NBA fans everywhere have been graced with the gift of long-awaited roundball revelry. Lakers fans have grown accustomed to Christmas day competition, having witnessed the team take the court every year since 1999. And this year is no different, as the Lakers prepare to face the eastern defensive superpower, the Chicago Bulls.
In a normal season, these games have been viewed as a litmus test for the team’s path to the Finals: Are they ready to win it all this year? How well do they perform against the top teams in the league? It may seem absurd to place so much emphasis on one game; no regular season matchup can live up to the hype generated by the money-making schemes that are superfluous this time of year. But as the Thomas theorem aptly states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” For example, the Lakers’ loss during last year’s Christmas hinted at subtle difficulties that revealed themselves more pronouncedly during the infamous Dallas beatdown. Kobe Bryant’s post-game comments on the situation about “playing with more focus and importance” and “showing up to work” foreshadowed the motivational struggles that ultimately led to the demise of the 2-time defending champs.
Enter Lakers Nation’s Christmas Contest!
Thus, Christmas Day games do carry some weight, and especially so now as the season opener. Looking back at the Lakers extensive history with Christmas Day games, it isn’t hard to remember some very special matchups and their effect on the storylines that permeated the season, especially over the past 20 years. Let’s take a look at the preeminent Christmas day matchups of the past decade.
2002: Lakers Succumb to Kings 105-99
After a grueling seven game Western Conference Finals left the Sacramento Kings bitter and broken, the hostility between these two west coast rivals was tangible. Prefaced by public taunting and a pre-season game that nearly came to blows, the atmosphere was markedly tense. Nevertheless, the Lakers’ effort was not matched by their production, as the Kings were simply the better team. The slumping Lakers collapsed in the second half, a dreadful antecedent to the remainder of the season. This Christmas game marked the implementation of wearing white uniforms on Sundays, the first time since 1967 that the Lakers had worn white jerseys.
2004-06: Miami Heat Devastate Los Angeles 104-102, 97-92, and 101-85
For three straight seasons, the Lakers met the Heat on Christmas day; and for three straight seasons, the Lakers lost. A scorned Shaquille O’Neal returned home in 2004, in a highly anticipated game that went to overtime. Shaq fouled out (much to the delight of the crowd), and Kobe missed the game-winning shot after pouring in 42 points. In 2005, the enmity between the two teams found its way onto the court, as Lamar Odom and Gary Payton nearly came to blows. 2006 was no different, as Wade emerged as one of the elite shooting guards in the league, scoring 40 with 11 assists. The heated (no pun intended) rivalry between these two teams served as backdrop to the tangible hostility experienced in the 2010 Christmas Day matchup, where the defending champs were embarrassed by a group of hastily assembled group of mercenaries.
2007: Lakers Beat Suns in Wild West Shootout 122-115
Having lost every Christmas Day game since 2001, the Lakers came out with purpose and determination. Both teams shot the ball extremely well, and Bynum had a spectacular night, scoring a career high 28 points to go with 12 rebounds and 4 assists. Kobe also lit it up, scoring 38 on 60% shooting. The game was important for division standings, as the win brought the Lakers within one game of the Pacific division leader and announced to the world that they were ready to compete again. The momentum from the win would propel the Lakers to their first Finals appearance since 2004, as well as Kobe to his first MVP coronation.
2008: Lakers Avenge Finals Embarrassment Against Celtics 92-83
Nearly six months after their infamous collapse in Boston, Kobe and Co. found themselves hungry for redemption. With the Celtics boasting a 27-2 record, many feared a repeat of the Boston massacre. But the Lakers aimed to show that they weren’t as “soft” as they had been labeled, snapping the Celtics 19-game winning streak. The aggressive attitude showed, as the Celtics could never regain composure. The win marked coach Phil Jackson’s 1000th career win, a total reached faster than any other coach in NBA history. Even Doc demonstrated his awe at the accomplishment: “It’s just an amazing number. When you throw up 1,000 wins, that says a lot.” The Lakers would use that momentum to boost them towards their second consecutive NBA Finals, winning the championship and excising the hurt of the bitter loss the year before.
2011: Lakers Initiate Comeback to Glory Against Chicago…
After being swept in the 2010 playoffs by the eventual champion Mavericks, the Lakers seem poised and focused to reclaim their place atop the league. As we all know, losses on Christmas Day don’t necessarily constitute postseason demise (see 2009 and 2010 Christmas games), but in a shortened season and as the season opener, it doesn’t hurt to start off right. The Bulls are just as hungry, and younger, than this current Lakers squad: any misstep can derail the momentum needed for a championship. A season nearly missed almost cost this Lakers team their last shot at championship contention, and with a shortened schedule this year, the timing is perfect for redemption. Despite all the joy that surrounds the league for the sake of the game, let’s hope the Lakers remember that winning it all is all that matters.