I hope every Laker used Wednesday's day off to get his Christmas shopping done, because after Thursday's practice, strolling a mall could be tough. The session ran about an hour longer than anticipated and included even typical bystanders like Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. All in all, the afternoon sounded fairly grueling. It also sounded extremely productive.
"We got a lot of stuff done," confirmed Pau Gasol. "We worked intensely. It was probably one of the best days we've had all year."
Phil Jackson praised the continuity offered by working with everyone present and accounted for. Guys like Andrew Bynum (newly returned) and Joe Smith (new in every sense) were given the rare opportunity to build dress rehearsal chemistry with the entire active roster. Steve Blake mentioned detail-drenched sessions on both sides of the ball. Lamar Odom echoed that assessment, noting how much easier it is to address "small things" with a full compliment of players.
Was the work cranked up to match the hype of Saturday's showdown? Not necessarily. Remember, the bright lights come on the heels of a badly played game Tuesday against the Bucks. A extensive tuneup might be in order against Miami of Ohio, much less the professional crew from South Beach.
"We gotta make sure that we bounce back from the game that we just screwed up," admitted Gasol.
Added Jackson, "I told the players today, I thought their comeuppance might come against Miami, but Milwaukee delivered the blow. So maybe it got their attention so they can get focused on basketball."
Consistent with comments over the last few days, players downplayed the importance of this matchup in terms of forecasting of the Finals. And they're absolutely right, by the way. There is often no worse barometer for predicting June than winter marquee matchups. Last season, the Cavs trounced the Lakers on two occasions, racked the best regular-season record and everyone was convinced LeBron James was on the verge of his first title. Instead, we got Eastern Conference semi-finals flame out, a repeat, and a certain "Decision" reshuffling the NBA's entire landscape. Splashy as this matchup genuinely is, results in either direction should be taken with an entire salt lick.
However, this attitude shouldn't be mistaken as indifference. Blake is looking forward to a "challenge." Gasol characterized the meeting as a statement opportunity of sorts, even as the squad with the jewelry. Odom noted how Christmas games against the champs are always a measuring stick game for contenders. (And he should know, since the Lakers' 2008 version against the Celts was treated as such.) Thus, the hosts have no choice but to remain focused, despite the early start and whatever holiday festivities are on the docket.
"I think we understand that we have to raise our level of intensity earlier in the game. Right from the jump ball," said the southpaw.
Speaking of Christmas, Jackson was naturally asked about IDon'tLikePlayingOnX-Mas-Gate. Fewer eyebrows will likely arch over words the second time around. Phil didn't retract the statement, reiterating (reasonably, in my opinion) the overkill of so many games on the 25th. Plus, he'd just rather be able to relax after a lifetime spent competing on Christmas. But despite preferring the day off personally and a lower key day of basketball generally, PJ also acknowledged the good fortune associated with these festivities. By the end, a fair summation was offered:
"It's something that you do and you go through it and you recognize that to be seen on national TV is an honor, but yet it's an imposition on your private life."
(FYI: Phil mentions the 9-73 Sixers beating the Knicks on Christmas during their 1973 title run. According to my man Dave McMenamin, the Sixer holiday victory actually happened against the Knicks during the 1977 season. Leave it to a Philly guy to correct The Zen Master. The Sixers also finished 50-32 that season and made it all the way to the Finals, which sorta undercuts PJ's "anything can happen" message, even if the larger "remain focused" point still holds.)
Ever been curious about what Pau ate on Christmas growing up? Wonder no more.
Watch this video all the way to the end, because Lamar's reaction to being asked how marriage has affected his Christmases is hilarious.