Posted Dec 23 2009 11:01AM
To Christmas TV watchers, they're as familiar as Jimmy Stewart and Peter Billingsley.
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant will each be playing in their 12th Christmas Day game on Friday when the Cavs visit the Lakers at Staples Center (5 p.m. ET, ABC). Considering that the average NBA player has just five years of experience, playing on Christmas 12 times is a pretty amazing feat.
Whether as teammates on the überpopular Lakers or as post-breakup foils, Shaq and Kobe have been in the same arena nine times on Christmas, though O'Neal has missed two of those games with injuries. Their relationship has been full of drama throughout the years, and it has been played out on the biggest stage outside of the postseason, in front of both casual and dedicated fans.
Christmas TV is about entertainment, and over the last 18 seasons, no player has been more entertaining than Shaq. He's big, he's jolly and he was made to play on Dec. 25.
He's played well, too. Shaq has recorded a double-double in 10 of the 11 Christmas games he's played in, including a year ago, when he had one of his better performances as a Phoenix Sun, scoring 23 points, grabbing 12 boards and blocking four shots.
This year, the selection of the Cavs for a Christmas Day matchup was more about LeBron James than Shaq. When you think Cavs-Lakers, you think of it as a matchup of the two best players in the world, rather than the next chapter in the Shaq and Kobe soap opera.
But O'Neal's presence on Friday is critical for the Cavs, more than it has been for most of their first 30 games. Cleveland struggled against teams with talented size in the pivot last season. They had the best record in the league, but they lost both meetings to the Lakers, getting doubled up in points in the paint 104-52.
So, while O'Neal's statistical line will likely be worse than any he's had in Christmas past, Friday's game will be a test of the Cavs' new, beefier frontline. And points in the paint will be the stat to watch.
The player to watch will be Bryant.
His Christmas Day history started quietly. As a rookie in 1996, Bryant came off the bench to play just five minutes in the Lakers' win in Phoenix. While O'Neal was carrying the team with 26 points and 16 rebounds, Bryant missed both shots he took and didn't score a point.
In 1999, with the Lakers on their way to their first post-Magic championship, Bryant was firmly entrenches in his sidekick role and saw his first real action on the Christmas stage. He's played every Christmas since and in 2007, he passed his former teammate as the active leader in Christmas Day points.
Bryant has yet to have a signature Christmas performance though. His career high on Christmas Day, 42 points in 2004, came with nine turnovers in an overtime loss to O'Neal's Heat. His best game in a win, 38 points against the Suns two years ago, was overshadowed by a career-high 28 points from Andrew Bynum.
Overall, Bryant has shot less than 40 percent from the field in Christmas games. And like Shaq, he's got a losing record (5-6) on Dec. 25. One of them will be back to 0.500 after Friday.
After this year's matchup, both Shaq and Kobe will be one short of the all-time mark of 13 Christmas games played, held by Earl Monroe and Dolph Schayes. With his contract expiring at the end of this season and his game in decline, it's difficult to predict where Shaq will be next year. At this point, he's not as high on the list of marquee names in the league. So we may be watching his last Christmas performance on Friday.
Bryant looks to have several more Christmas games in him. His popularity certainly isn't waning. Neither is his game or the quality of his supporting cast with the Lakers. He's likely to tie Monroe and Schayes next year and pass them in 2011. Some time after that, Bryant should pass Oscar Robertson as the all-time Christmas Day scoring leader.
Kobe got his first championship without Shaq this past June. Eventually, he'll make Christmas history without him too. Just not this year.
|Kobe Bryant's Christmas Past|
|Shaquille O'Neal's Christmas Past|
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