No question about game's importance

CLEVELAND -- As soon as the question was asked after the Lakers' shootaround on Thursday, Kobe Bryant turned his head and shot the reporter a look as if he'd just been asked the most preposterous question he'd ever heard.

"Is this a rivalry, this Cavs game?" the reporter asked.

"No," Bryant said. "Not at all."

He has a point. The Lakers and Cavaliers play only twice a year and even the Bryant-LeBron James and Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal individual matchups are getting stale.

If Kobe and LeBron can share the Olympics spotlight together (and their puppets can share commercials), we shouldn't assume there's some vicious one-upmanship going on between them. And if snakes and cacti can share the desert together in harmony, then the Mamba and the Big Shaqtus can coexist on the court.

But, if we don't call it a rivalry, we can call it as good a regular-season matchup as there is in the NBA. Los Angeles and Cleveland are tied for the league lead in wins with 32 apiece. If the Cavaliers win today, they sweep the season series and would hold home-court advantage in the Finals should the two teams still have the same amount of wins at the end of the regular season and end up meeting in June.

There is something extra to play for.

That said, let's look at five things that could determine which team comes out on top:

1. No Mo

Mo Williams torched the Lakers for 28 points on 8-for-13 shooting and dished out seven assists in Cleveland's 102-87 romp on Christmas Day, but he'll be out of the lineup Thursday because of a sprained left shoulder. The Cavs lose an All-Star, but have the highly capable Delonte West ready to step into the starting lineup, which Cleveland coach Mike Brown said was the plan. West has been erratic of late, only shooting better than 50 percent in one of his past six games. Williams' absence also bumps Daniel Gibson into the backup point guard role after Gibson had started to be phased out of the rotation, not playing more than 17 minutes in a game since Dec. 16.

2. Kobe's Finger

Bryant was asked how his battered right index finger felt after the Lakers played on Monday and replied, "It feels fractured, you know?" He's played with the injury for 21 games now and has had some valiant efforts during that time, but shot just 4-for-19 in his last game against Orlando. He insisted the finger felt better at Thursday's shootaround, but he's really just another jammed hand away from incredible pain. He has gone back to using a metal splint underneath the tape he puts on the finger and said his mechanics were back on track after shooting in Quicken Loans Arena with Lakers assistant Chuck Person.

3. The Physicality Factor

You know the movie scene they always show on arena JumboTrons: "Nobody, and I mean nobody, comes into our house and pushes us around"? Well, the Cavs did just that in Staples Center on Dec. 25. The Lakers have acknowledged the need to be the aggressors and it will start inside with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum against O'Neal and Anderson Varejao. Bynum is getting over a stomach virus so he may have to will his 7-foot frame into initiating the punishment that Shaq's body creates.

4. Ron versus LeBron

Ron Artest said at shootaround that he doesn't remember what happened on Christmas, and he wasn't talking about his concussion-causing accident after the game. He was talking about the game itself. We all have the tendency to block out bad memories. Artest will get the task of trying to slow James, who will have the ball in his hands even more than usual with Williams out.

5. Threes Are Key

The Lakers have the No. 1 ranked perimeter defense in the league, holding opponents to just 31.0 percent on 3-pointers while the Cavaliers are No. 1 in 3-point percentage thanks primarily to James, Williams, West, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Williams and Moon (abdominal injury) being out will lessen Cleveland's threat, but Gibson is a former 3-point contest participant and is dead-on when he gets going. Closeouts and rotations by Bryant, Artest, Derek Fisher and the rest of the Lakers guards and wings will be critical.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.