by Graham Flashner

For Lakers-haters and LeBron lovers, this was a great game. Otherwise, it was damned ugly. Kinda reminded me of the way L.A. lost in the dark years post-Shaq and pre-Gasol, when Kobe Bryant jacked up shots, his teammates stood around, and everyone whined to the refs. As far as Christmas Day games go, this had Scrooge’s footprints all over it: five Laker technical fouls, 36 percent shooting, lax defense, foam finger-throwing fans. In short: the game was a real turkey. Pass the stuffing, please.

It was a far cry from a year ago, when the defending champion Celtics swaggered into L.A. with a 19-game winning streak and the Lakers rose to the challenge, puncturing the C’s aura of invincibility and using it as a springboard for a championship run.

But that Lakers team never showed up today. They fell to 4-7 all-time on Christmas games, while the Cavs, after being swept two games by L.A. last year, sent their own message about what could be in store come June.

Pregame

The Lakers come into the game with a glittering 15-1 mark since Pau Gasol rejoined the lineup, and an 11-game home win streak, in large part thanks to a generous schedule that saw them play 17 of their first 21 at Staples.

On the Cavaliers’ side, it’s the usual scene: a bunch of reporters standing in a hushed silence, watching as King James, lying on his back on the floor, stretches with a trainer. He doesn’t look like he’s ready to talk anytime soon.

On the Lakers side, the locker room is predictably empty. Lamar Odom lazes by his locker, talking about Cleveland’s most notable marquee addition. “Any time you add a player like Shaq, he can’t help but bring something. He’s still got that myth and aura around him,” Odom says. Even at age 37? Odom nods slowly. “He’s still got it.”

I ask him about the Kobe-LeBron non-rivalry that the media would love to create. “You don’t have to dislike someone to have a rivalry,” Odom says. “You got two great players who like to play, and a great chance to match up tonight.”

Odom stirs restlessly. “I’m ready to get it on already. Not sure about these day game starts.”

Back to the Cavs’ side: same scene, bigger crowd. LeBron is now on his stomach, getting his legs worked. I step out to catch Mike Brown’s presser. Brown is the first to admit that, despite their 22-8 record, the Cavs aren’t clicking on all cylinders. “We’re scoring points, but we’re not in a great rhythm,” he says. We need a few more drives and kicks on our possessions.”

It’s been no secret that Shaq has been a bit unhappy with his minutes, but Brown deftly dodges. “I have a better feel for him and his teammates are getting a better feel for him. I don’t want to overkill him with minutes, and that’s why we’re bringing him along with the minutes he’s been playing.”

Responding to ESPN’s Mark Jackson’s quote about how O’Neal’s struggles at defending the pick-and-roll make the Cavs’ defense a “disaster waiting to happen, Brown shrugs. “He’s part right. Our pick-and-roll D isn’t good; our transition D isn’t good; we don’t box out as well as we should.” Of course, as Brown quickly noted, the Cavs are the No. 2 ranked defense in the League. “I’m not a stat guy, but I do value opponents’ points-per-game average, and we’re not doing too badly there.”

Brown continues to speak, but reporters suddenly bail, streaming back into the locker room, an unmistakable signal that the King is ready to hold court. I follow them.

By the time I get there, his corner looks like a rugby scrum.

It’s amazing sometimes, the questions that get asked. A reporter brings up an incident from seven years ago, when LeBron was in high school and was wearing a pair of diamond earrings that he had said weren’t real, and the reporter wondered if he’d lied to escape an investigation by the NCAA. Now, seven years later, this same reporter is here to once again ask LeBron, “Were the diamonds real, or were they fake?” LeBron shakes his head, says he can’t recall the incident, and that it’s got nothing to do with that’s going on here. The reporter quietly slips away.

Back to the present. Commenting on the state of the Cavaliers, LBJ says: “We’re very talented. We know we can play defense, especially late in the game. We’ve got good chemistry. We protect each other on and off the court.”

I ask LBJ if he thinks a Kobe-LeBron rivalry would be good for the League, in the way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were.

“The fact that Magic and Bird played each other in college in the Finals and then got to the NBA and played multiple times in the Finals, that helped. I’m not sure a Kobe-LeBron rivalry would be good for the League; you’d have to ask Davd Stern.”

I’m only sorry I didn’t ask him about the puppets. Even Magic and Bird never had those.

After a scrumptious holiday press room buffet of turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and apple pie, it’s time, as Lamar says, to get it on.

Buzz at Staples is good, but it’s not at Celtic levels. Last year’s Christmas Day crowd was vengeful, full of bloodlust for an enemy that had to be vanquished. There’s no animosity between the Lakers and Cavaliers, and no playoff history either. Even Shaq’s return is a ho-hum affair at this point, his introduction a lukewarm mix of boos and cheers.

Most ominous is the courtside celeb crowd, which is decidedly B-list for such a hyped game: Sly Stallone, Alex Trebek (!) Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, George Lopez, Craig Kilborn, Ellen Pompeo, Anna Kournikova, Snoop Dogg. No Jack, no Leo. Hell, even Jeffrey Katzenberg isn’t here. Whassup with that?

1st quarter

Gasol drops in a pretty running floater over LBJ. On the other end, Shaq tries to respond, but his floater misses. Surprisingly, he’s booed every time he touches the ball. Wasn’t expecting that.

Kobe, trying to get off quickly, drops in a smooth shot from the side. It’s 6-0 Lakers, then 8-2. Little do they know this will be the high point of their night. From here, it’s a 45-19 Cavs blitz.

Ron Artest has a “Mission Impossible”-style task. His assignment, should he choose to accept it – and he has – is to contain the King. Artest muscles LBJ as he moves through the lane. But the freelancing James can’t be stopped from the perimeter: 8-4 L.A.

Shaq seals off Andrew Bynum, spins off him baseline, and crashes in for the dunk as Gasol comes over too late to help. Bynum gives Gasol a look that says, “It’s very lonely out here on the block.”

Highlight play of the night so far: LeBron blasts his way down an uncontested middle for a one-handed throwdown. 19-15 Cavs.

LeBron backs Artest into the block, gets the ball, hits an easy turnaround. Scary if he did that more often. Luckily for his opponents, the King would still rather pass than shoot.

If there’s anyone who looks like he could’ve played in the Lakers’ first Christmas Day game in 1949 against the Fort Wayne Pistons, it’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas. No one shoots the flat-footed set shot like Big Z.

Kobe kills the first quarter clock as only he can – stutter step drive right, elevate over two defenders, bank shot. Money. 23-19 Cavs after one. At 55.6 percent, the Cavs are shooting the lights out.

2nd quarter

Mo Williams takes over: a jumper, a steal, a slashing drive, and suddenly Cleveland’s lead is 10.

A great fake by Anderson Varejao practically brings Odom out of his shorts. Varejao steps around him for an easy layup. 33-21.

Kobe attacks basket; Shaq fouls. No other Laker is attacking; everyone’s playing like like they’ve had too much eggnog, and Kobe’s having to work too hard for his shots.

Enter Sasha Vujacic. Before the game, Phil Jackson had expressed concern about the inconsistent play of the bench, and no one is a bigger target than Sasha. He immediately makes his presence felt, throwing a bad pass into the hands of Delonte West. Then, Sasha misses a long three, and Mo comes right back and makes a long three of his own. Boos for Sasha. 40-25, Cavs. Mo and Delonte West are killing the Lakers with speed and penetration.

LeBron hit Jamario Moon for a flying dunk. Jamario who? It’s a name the Lakers will continue to hear.

Boos as Cavs extend lead to 47-27. The Lakers’ bigs are getting pushed around inside. Bynum isn’t getting touches and has been rendered irrelevant. And Gasol isn’t getting his feathery post-up shots.

Suddenly – Artest takes over. A steal, a layup, another basket- the lead is down to 11, and the Lakers defense has finally come to life. The crowd is in it. The game is starting to turn.

Crowd on its feet as Kobe holds for last shot. Another gut-check drive, and foul. MVP chants.

Except here comes LBJ, launching from beyond midcourt. And… it’s… good! Except that it isn’t. The shot’s too late. 51-42, a 12-2 run by L.A. to close the half.

3rd quarter

Kobe makes a textbook block from behind on shot by Anthony Parker. Beats the floor for a breakaway. 54-48, it’s a game again, the crowd back into it.

And then it all goes to hell for the Lakers.

It begins with the worst foul of the night, Gasol bailing out Mo from beyond the arc with the shot clock just about out. Mo converts all three shots. Lead back to 11.

Then Kobe, who’s been edgy and off his game all night, starts forcing the action.

He gets his shot blocked from behind by Parker. The lookof surprise on his face is priceless. Then he runs into Shaq on a drive, Parker again stripping the ball; Kobe enraged there’s no foul. Again, Kobe takes it hard to the middle, where Shaq awaits – and again, the shot falls short. It’s starting to look like the bad old days of 2005, when Shaq and Kobe faced each other for the first time as opponents and Kobe went overboard trying to prove his dominance.

In frustration, Kobe shoves Mo Williams to the floor – refs don’t see it.

Then it’s Odom’s turn to gripe– he gets T’d up.

The Cavs’ lead expands to 16, then 20. Artest misses two 3’s on one possession. Kobe is 9-24 shooting.

The Cavs are playing like a team with something to prove. The Lakers have reverted to the whiny bitches of a few years ago, sniping at the refs, waiting for Kobe to make a shot, giving up too many easy buckets.

At least the organist is having a good night. After the refs miss an out-of-bounds call, they’re serenaded by the opening bars of the Christmas carol, “Do you hear what I hear.”

Cavs up 19 after the third.

4th quarter

Every mini-Lakers run is answered by a Cleveland basket. Kobe’s taking too many shots, but his teammates aren’t stepping up. It takes him 32 shots to score 35 points. No other Laker takes more than 11 shots.

An Artest three gives L.A. its last gasp, cutting the lead to 86-73. But Jamario Moon, one of today’s heroes (6-7, 13 points) hits the dagger, a three to beat the shot clock, and the Lakers have nothing left.

With 4:04 to go, Derek Fisher fouls Mo Williams with a well-placed elbow. LBJ comes over to bark at Fish; Kobe steps in for a heated exchange with LBJ; Odom gets his second T and is ejected; the Lakers get called for a delay-of-game, and angry fans have seen enough. They rain down dozens of yellow foam fingers on the court, as the P.A. announcer pleads for restraint. A couple of water bottles get tossed as well. Fortunately, no one gets hurt. I’ve seen the Lakers melt down emotionally plenty of times, but I’ve never seen L.A. fans melt down with ‘em. It’s the pathetic display of a kid who didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas. Boo-hoo! The Lakers tanked it, Mommy!

Cavs win, 102-87.

Postgame

“They came out definitely ready to play, they started quick, and we never countered it,” says Andrew Bynum in a subdued locker room.

“They played harder; they played better,” says Pau Gasol. “Obviously there was some frustration out there. Guys weren’t happy, and they reacted to some calls. But the referees didn’t have anything to do with the way the game turned out.”

Asked about the failures on offense, Gasol says: “It was bad execution offensively. We didn’t move the ball well. Quick shots, one or two passes, and they capitalized on the other end.”

On the Cavs’ side, I ask a smiling Jamario Moon by his locker if he was surprised by the Lakers losing their cool. “You got a lot of different emotions going on out there, and everyone wants to win games, and it probably would’ve been the same for us if the shoe was on the other foot.”

The seas part as the King makes his way from the shower. Clad only in a towel, he wants to get this over with.

“It was a very testy game,” LeBron says. “Both teams were very physical, and that’s the way it has to be when two great teams collide. I think the refs did an unbelievable job of letting us play physical, and we adjusted to the refs.”

Were the Cavs trying to send a message? “It wasn’t about sending a message to them,” James says. “It was about sending a message to ourselves and seeing how we match up with the best team in the NBA at this point. It was a good road win for us. I think it ranks up there, just because of the caliber of the team and the caliber of the players they have.”

I head back to the Lakers side in time to catch Kobe, looking like a woodsman in a red flannel shirt. “They played harder than we did,” he says. Asked whether his big guys needed more touches, Bryant charitably says: “I think they got outworked.”

As did the entire Lakers team. No need to panic; it was just one of those nights. For the Cavs, it was a great end to a 3-1 trip. And further evidence that the title of Beast Of The East is still up for grabs.