NBA's Heat, Lakers Set to Work on Christmas

The Miami Heat host the Los Angeles Lakers in what has become a traditional holiday matchup. It's the only game on Monday's NBA schedule, and it lacks the lustre of past meetings.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Christmas Day is supposed to be a big day for the NBA, even though the defending champion Miami Heat will play the Los Angeles Lakers on national TV. The game lacks the sizzle of the league and ABC TV, had hoped for.

Commentator John Feinstein joins us now. Good morning.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee. Merry Christmas.

MONTAGNE: And merry Christmas to you. So Heat-Lakers, why isn't this game a big deal?

FEINSTEIN: Well, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Heat, even though they're the defending NBA champions are under 500 right now, and a lot of the reason for that is that Shaquille O'Neal, their star center, has been hurt for much of the season, and he won't play today. There's also not the animosity between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, because O'Neal won't be playing.

You remember when they were teammates, when they ripped each other after O'Neal left the Lakers and there was all these anger between them. Well, that's kind of faded. And now the Lakers are just a pretty good team coached by Phil Jackson, and the Heat are an under 500 team. So even though Dwayne Wade, who somehow got picked by Sports Illustrated, as the Sportsman of the Year, is still there with the Heat. It's not that big a deal with Shaquille O'Neal absent.

MONTAGNE: Well, can the Heat rebound if Shaquille O'Neal can get back to 100 percent?

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. I think they can at least in the Eastern Conference, because the East is so weak. The only good team in the East is the Detroit Pistons. Everybody else is either mediocre or bad. So if O'Neal can come back and play, then I think the Heat can be a factor in the East. The best teams in the NBA though still remain in the Western Conference.

MONTAGNE: And John, in the meantime, the biggest story in the league to date was something that even I read very closely. And you know I'm not the world's biggest sports fan, and a really embarrassing brawl. What is your take on the Knicks-Nuggets fight?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it was embarrassing, with, you know, 10 players involved, 6 players suspended by Commissioner David Stern, including the league's leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony for 15 games in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of basketball. The worst part of it though, is that, it really started with the two coaches - Isiah Thomas of the Knicks, George Karl of the Nuggets.

George Karl was trying to rub it in on Isiah Thomas because he fired his pal Larry Brown. Isiah Thomas responded by ordering, I believe, a hard foul that led to the fight. The coaches, both should have been suspended for their behavior after the game. That's the one area where I think David Stern made a mistake.

MONTAGNE: Well, on the subject of the Nuggets, they were involved in another huge story last week, and this involves a trade.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. They picked up Allen Iverson from the Philadelphia 76ers, who has been an MVP, who at his best is still one of the five best players in the league, but can be so much trouble because he doesn't like to practice because he won't play hard, because he has to shoot the ball 30 times a game. This is what we call, Renee, a boom or bust trade. The Nuggets are a pretty good team. They add Allen Iverson, when Carmelo Anthony comes back they could potentially be an NBA champion.

They could be that good if Iverson and Anthony can play together, or they'll fight over the basketball, and go straight down the shoot. George Karl will end up fired and everybody will say what the heck were they thinking? We'll see.

MONTAGNE: Okay. One last thing before the year's out, biggest surprise so far?

FEINSTEIN: Got to be the Utah Jazz, very mediocre team for the last few years. They've got the third best record in the league. Jerry Sloan who has been coaching them since I think early in the 20th century, is one of the most underrated coaches in basketball. It's good to see his team, with no super stars, playing very good ball.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much and a happy holiday.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Renee. Same to you and everybody.

MONTAGNE: The comments of John Feinstein. He's author of "Next Man Up: A Year Inside Today's NFL."

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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