LOS ANGELES -- Outside of fame, riches and backlit banners, there is no motivator in sports quite like the threat of everlasting ignominy. It is the specter that hangs over each of the so-called super teams, the realization that if they fail, reputations will be ruined and legacies tarnished. They are not allowed to finish ninth and try again next year. Results are demanded in all those max contracts. Injuries may be an excuse for the Timberwolves and 76ers, not clubs with three Hall of Famers on the roster.
Back in the dawn of the super-team era, when a 9-8 start was cause for panic and humiliation, the Heat responded with a trip to the Finals one year and a championship the next. The expectations, while burdensome, infused them with the edge every contender tries to find and maintain. They had no safety net, and they played like it, sometimes sloppy but almost always hard. Now that they've won their title, and eradicated the potential for disaster, the edge comes and it goes.
LeBron James said this week that the Lakers have not faced anywhere near the scrutiny the Heat did, and he is correct. The Lakers have not been over .500 since Thanksgiving, but only recently has the severity of their predicament seemed to sink in. If the Lakers do not make the playoffs, a distinct possibility, they will go down as one of the most disappointing teams in the history of sports and one of the worst money can buy. They are chasing the Blazers and Rockets while running from the '92 Mets and '11 Eagles.
The Heat came to Staples Center on Thursday at the end of a nine-day road trip and on the second night of a back-to-back. The Lakers had won two in a row, which for them constitutes an extended streak, and they had their full complement of stars because Pau Gasol was back from a concussion. In what was once considered a Finals preview, before anyone actually saw Steve Nash or Dwight Howard in a gold uniform, the Lakers did what they failed to do in the first two months. They worked. They scrapped. They defended. Despite 20 turnovers, and a dearth of easy baskets, they somehow clawed their way to a tie score with two-and-a-half minutes left.
The Heat still won, 99-90, for the same reason they are still favorites to repeat. In a way, this game could be emblematic of this season. The Lakers made a bunch of shiny moves. The Clippers built a potent bench. The Knicks got off to a fast start. Kevin Durant became an all-around force. But, in the end, it may not matter because LeBron James remains in Miami. While Kobe Bryant was launching contested fade-aways, and actually hitting some of them, James was charging into the middle of the Lakers squishy defense, finishing with a barrage of lay-ups, reverse lay-ups and ferocious jams reminiscent of last spring. "You've got to marvel at what he did," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni.
In the Finals against Oklahoma City, James made 51 baskets, and only seven were outside the paint. Midway through the fourth quarter Thursday, he had made 13 baskets, and none was outside the paint. He finished with 39 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and a reminder that he can do pretty much whatever he wants when the spotlight grows and the urge strikes. James delivered at least half-a-dozen did-you-see-that plays, including the blow-by of Howard, the crossover on Gasol, and the steal at the three-point line in which he dunked without even requiring a dribble. According to ESPN, his six jams were his most in a game since he signed with Miami.
James was assigned to Bryant with 5:27 left and immediately hounded him into a miss, dove on the floor for the rebound, and raced down the court to find Ray Allen for a three-pointer. "The play of this trip," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra called it. In the past two days, James totaled 64 points with 18 assists in 73 minutes, renewing his MVP campaign against Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. If there is a switch to be flipped on the Heat season, James is throwing it down. He sneered playfully at the Staples Center crowd, barked at teammate Joel Anthony and jumped in front of Chris Bosh for a rebound, prompting Bosh to wave his arms in frustration.
The Lakers, who have suffered many inexcusable losses this season, seemed to understand they were just more collateral damage. "I'm stubborn but I'm realistic," Bryant said. The Lakers quest for the playoffs won't be determined by showdowns against James and the Heat. If they fight like this when they're in Chicago next week, and Minnesota next month, and all the other middle-of-the-road spots on their schedule, they will fulfill their revised goal of becoming the most troublesome No. 8 seed ever.
And, if they don't, they will undoubtedly be remembered alongside some of sports biggest busts. Bryant will wear that stain forever, as will Howard and Nash and Gasol. Such are the stakes for a super-team. Such are the terms of the deal. Because the Lakers are relatively old and slow, they will never fly around the way the Heat did in 2010, never smother opponents in fourth quarters. Their circumstances, as James said, are entirely different. But by now, their urgency should be the same.