LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher scarcely remember how to celebrate Christmas without a high-profile game smack in the middle of their holiday season.
That’s life with the Los Angeles Lakers — and that goes for the Lakers’ families, too.
"With the amount of gifts my kids receive, they could care less if I’m there or not," Fisher said with a laugh Thursday after the Lakers’ light afternoon practice for their showdown with LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Santa Claus will do his job," the veteran point guard added. "I’ve found that it’s weird to think about not working on Christmas. A lot of guys realize it’s special to be on that stage, while people are home with their eggnog relaxing."
Bryant is similarly excited about facing James on Friday in a meeting of the top two vote-getters in the NBA All-Star balloting.
O’Neal’s latest return to Los Angeles also will draw attention, although Bryant eliminated a long-thriving subplot in their meetings by winning his first title without Shaq last summer.
"It’s a tradition, and it’s really special to be a part of it," said Bryant, whose daughters get some of their presents on Christmas Eve and the rest early the following morning.
While it’s no imposition to play on Christmas, it’s still an opportunity — although the Lakers acknowledge this matchup isn’t quite as energizing as last year’s visit from the Boston Celtics, whose 19-game winning streak ended in the holiday rematch of the 2008 NBA finals. Los Angeles’ 92-83 victory also happened to be coach Phil Jackson’s 1,000th win.
While Los Angeles and Boston have one of the NBA’s best rivalries, the Cavs have no significant history or animosity with the Lakers. Even Kobe and Shaq apparently are on good terms five years after "the big breakup of ’04," as Fisher calls O’Neal’s departure for Miami.
"There’s nothing there," Bryant said. "It’s about putting LeBron and myself on national TV. Outside of that, there’s nothing. … We were really using that game last year as a measuring stick. This year, it’s a little different."
The Cavaliers are enjoying balmy California while playing a Christmas game for the fourth time in James’ seven seasons. They worked out at UCLA on Thursday before James and other players spent time with families who traveled to the West Coast for the holiday fun and sun.
"It’s bigger for (the media) than it is for us," James said before the Cavs’ overtime victory over the Kings on Wednesday night. "You guys put a lot of emphasis on LeBron and Kobe and the Christmas Day game. I’m focused on Sacramento right now. When it happens it will be a fun game. It’s two of the best teams in the league. It will be a good test for us."
Los Angeles has won five straight and 16 of 17. Cleveland has won two in a row after holding off Sacramento. While the Lakers lead the league, the Cavaliers are third in the Eastern Conference — but Jackson sees something brewing in Cleveland after a slow start to the season.
"They’re in a rhythm now," said Jackson, whose grown children usually gather in Los Angeles for the holidays. "They’re playing pretty good basketball. … Yeah, (Bryant and James) are rivals. I think they like to compete against each other. There’s mutual respect there."
Although O’Neal’s playing time has fluctuated this season, apparently to his displeasure — he ducked out without speaking to reporters after playing 22 minutes in Sacramento — he’s likely to play significant minutes against the Lakers’ talented front line led by 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
"I think it should be a very competitive game," said Gasol, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Lakers on Wednesday. "They are a contender also, and they have very good players on their roster. We’ve got to make sure we defend our home court, first of all, and always try to send a message. It’s always good to make a stand against an opponent that’s trying to reach the same goal that you are."
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.