Saturday report

If you’re asking me on Feb. 10 just who the Lakers will be playing on Christmas next season, my guess probably would be LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA has exhausted the Lakers-Heat rivalry after three Christmases and the two Kobe/LeBron games last season both made for entertaining viewing. Just as long as they play in L.A., I don’t have a problem.

For some reason, the NBA scheduled both Kobe/LeBron games for the same week. So five days after getting together in Cleveland, we’ll do it all over again at Staples Center. Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn’t have a problem, saying that by playing a team like Detroit once in November and then not again until February, “You forget who those people are, how ugly they look.

How about a little talk about matchups? The Cavaliers play two guards (Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson) opposite LeBron James with Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas the big bodies up front. But Jackson said at Saturday’s practice he isn’t going to have Bryant start the game by guarding James, taking the natural matchup against Hughes instead.

Who guards James? My best guess would be Lamar Odom, who has the length and size to create some problems. Jackson also has to answer the quesiton about whether he wants to keep starting Vladimir Radmanovic at forward. If he does, Odom would take James and Radmanovic would be left to bang with Gooden inside. Another option would be starting Brian Cook in place of Radmanovic.

That would mark one of the most amazing 72-hour turnarounds in the history of sports. After getting benched for discarding his warm-up top in Jackson’s lap, Cook could wind up in the starting lineup. That seems highly unlikely, though, as Cook seems just as overmatched as Radmanovic when it comes to battling a power forward around the basket.

A third option might be playing Odom on Gooden and starting Maurice Evans on James. I’ve wanted to see Evans start a couple of times this season when the matchups have seemed favorable but Jackson seems to prefer to keep him coming off the bench. Evans did just have a great game, scoring 19 points and hitting 7 of 11 shots, against the Raptors.

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One member of the Lakers thought it might be interesting to look up how the team has fared whenever it has had two or more days off to prepare for a game. The Lakers got drilled on Christmas in such a situation and trailed from start to finish Thursday against Detroit after having a two-day break between games.

As it turns out, the Lakers are 3-4 with two or more days off. Maybe it’s just that the losses have felt so crushing, including a home game last month in which Odom returned from a knee injury.

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There’s been a perception that James opened the season tired after playing for USA Basketball at the World Championships and has not played as consistently at the same level as before. The numbers seem to back that up as well, with James averaging 26.4 ppg this season, down from 31.4 ppg last season.

“Hes probably been a little tired,” Bryant said. “He had a long season last year. He had a long summer. Coming into this year, having to shoulder the load again, Im sure hes a little tired. But its just about getting his second wind. Once he gets his second wind, itll be fine.

A little later, Bryant added: “The thing is for Cleveland, its better that he feels it now than later.’

It’s always hard to figure out just how close some of these NBA stars are. Bryant and James have starred in the same Nike commericials and probably will be captains of the USA Basketball team that Beijing Olympics.

“We’ve known each other for a while,” Bryant said. “I’m there for him as I am with all the young fellas, for advice or whatever it may be. They all know that they can come talk to me about whatever.”

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Whenever we head to Toronto for games, we have to clear customs for games. They always ask what your work is and how long you’ll be/were staying. When I told the agent at the airport this morning that I was a sportswriter covering the Lakers, the question I got back was: “So how many gay players are there in the NBA?”

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By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

CLEVELAND–As long as the Lakers need a victory to break even on this eight-game trip through the Eastern Conference, Kobe Bryant wont have much to say about this afternoons showdown between himself and LeBron James.

“I told you individual matchups dont excite me any more, Bryant said. “Ive played in so many of them, it just doesnt do anything for me.

Maybe that sounds familiar because Bryant has said as much at two previous stops on this trip, when the Lakers earned victories at Washington and Atlanta and Bryant outshined the likes of Gilbert Arenas and Joe Johnson.

At the same time, Bryant can remember watching the battles between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Jordan and Isiah Thomas. He allowed that for fans tuning in to watch himself and James, “I think its something thats very interesting to watch.

This will be just the first act for Bryant and James: They will play again in five days, with the Cavaliers-Lakers game Thursday at Staples Center serving as the lead-in to All-Star weekend.

The Lakers, however, have bigger concerns than watching two of the heirs to Jordans legacy square off. A loss to Cleveland not only would send them home with a 3-5 record on this trip but with their second three-game losing streak of the season.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that recovering from disappointing losses to Detroit and Toronto to beat the Cavaliers would be “the mark of a team thats really got some character.

Walton out: With his sprained right ankle struggling to improve, forward Luke Walton will be re-examined Monday in Los Angeles by specialist Kenneth Jung. Walton wont play today and is likely out through the All-Star break, Jackson said.

Walton, who has missed eight games with the injury, tried to do some running Saturday but said his ankle was still “throbbing whenever he tried to push off it.

Its frustrating not being able to play, Walton said. “I thought I would be able to play on this road trip. Now its just not going to happen.

Lineup changes: Even in a game Friday where Bryant scored 25 points and missed more shots than he made, the Lakers showed how desperately they miss the superstar guard when he is not on the floor.

Although Bryant sat for a combined 5:11, the Lakers were outscored 15-2 in that time. Jackson has been playing a lineup of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Maurice Evans and Ronny Turiaf with starter Lamar Odom when Bryant has gone to the bench.

“Ive been leaving Lamar out there with them, Jackson said. “I think Im going to stop that. Just let them go really on their own because they play really well and move the ball well and Ive saddled them with Lamar. Its been unfortunate. Hes not been carrying the load.

Jackson also will have to decide whether to start forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who was benched for the final 21 minutes of Fridays loss. The Cavaliers start two guards alongside James; Jackson said he would open today with Bryant on Larry Hughes.

Radmanovic missed all four shots he took Friday and struggled to guard Torontos Chris Bosh. He said Saturday: “I dont have a big credit with the coach. Ive got to get my stuff straight before he makes some changes.

Even with the Lakers more than 50 games into the season, Radmanovic still is searching for answers. He said he is not bothered by the hand injury he suffered in training camp. Its more a matter of getting off to a good start when he plays.

“Its been a tough season, Radmanovic said. “Ive probably played the last minutes (of games) my whole career. Its been frustrating. Im just trying to be a team player right now and put my agenda on the side. Just have the game come to me. Its been tough but I dont want to force anything.

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  • Doug

    I’m not so sure Miami gets bounced out of the Christmas Day game while the Lakers remain. In my opinion, the winner of that days game should stay, and the loser should go.

    Doug