By Rob Mahoney
With the NFL out the way for Sunday scheduling purposes, the NBA's weekend matinees are in full bloom. This week's showcase featured the presumed title favorites in the Heat and the underwhelming Lakers, and though that pairing had the potential to end in a nationally televised blowout, the final product was a competitive, chippy game that brought out stellar individual play from most of the biggest stars involved.
That said, there was only so much that the Lakers could do to fight off the inevitability that comes with playing a better, healthier team. After holding a slight lead or keeping pace for much of the game, Los Angeles committed eight fourth-quarter turnovers and finally gave way to a late Miami run that earned the Heat a 107-97 victory.
The Heat pushed their winning streak to five and stretched their lead in the Eastern Conference to 2½ games over the Knicks. The Lakers completed a 4-3 road trip and fell four games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.
• The fact that Miami played much of this game either from behind or at a virtual draw isn't at all insignificant, but it also offers no real reason for concern. Though I'm sure coach Erik Spoelstra would sleep more soundly at night if his team built and maintained earlier leads, the defending champion's most impressive attribute may be its elasticity. No team is more explosive in coming from behind, as we've seen the Heat absorb blows game after game only to eradicate deficits in mere minutes. That trend won't be sustainable against the Heat's best playoff opponents, but it's easy to trust a team this smart and this talented when it comes to biding its time, in part because of performances like this one.
The Heat were never on the ropes on Sunday, but minor errors in their execution -- exacerbated by some spectacular plays from Kobe Bryant, who finished with 28 points on just 19 shots to go with nine assists -- afforded the Lakers a few too many quality looks for Miami to create a buffer. As such, the two teams traded baskets for far longer than they reasonably should have, until the Heat used pure talent and effort to overwhelm their opponent with a few minutes remaining.
LeBron James (32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists) drove past any defender unfortunate enough to be assigned to him, and in the process extended his incomprehensible hot streak. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, LeBron joins Moses Malone and Adrian Dantley as the only players in NBA history to score 30 or more points and shoot at least 60 percent from the field in five consecutive games. James is also the first player in Heat history to record five 30-point games in a row, and in those performances he shot 55-of-77 (71.4 percent) from the field.
"He's making greatness look easy," Spoelstra told reporters after the game.
Yet this wasn't an entirely LeBron-centric showing for the Heat. Dwyane Wade's work off the dribble proved vital in closing out the game, and he finished with 30 points (also on 12-of-18 shooting) and five assists. The outstanding play of James and Wade was flanked beautifully by a collective hustle toward every loose ball and a gang rebounding effort that allowed Miami -- which doesn't count offensive rebounding as a strength -- to earn second chances on nearly 30 percent of its misses. That combination is just brutal for most opponents to contend with, as the Lakers discovered all too well despite their solid all-around performance.
• L.A. is still in crisis mode because of the very real possibility of missing the postseason, but the Lakers deserve credit for surviving their various injuries to demonstrate some decent improvement. Bryant has done well over the last few games to prop up an offense that can turn lame at times, but L.A. is also getting nice contributions from Steve Nash (who looks old, but no longer looks geriatric) and Earl Clark (who has been terrific as a release valve, including an 18-point game on Sunday), as well as much-needed help from an injury-hampered Dwight Howard.
Still, it's hard to watch the Lakers and not see the caveats in their play. This is a team that so often succeeds in spite of itself, starting with a still-concerning lack of defensive accountability. The chemistry between Howard and Clark is significantly better than the defensive synergy between Howard and Pau Gasol, but that alone isn't enough to make up for Metta World Peace so consistently misplaying his hand on the perimeter and Bryant's clear disinterest in playing any kind of fundamental defense whatsoever. Those aren't just pointed gripes after a game in which World Peace and Bryant were asked to contain James and Wade against all odds, but a more general indictment of more problematic defensive habits given that the Lakers just don't have the ability to compensate reliably on the back line.
Offensively, the tendency to work through Bryant so consistently is still a bit worrisome, particularly with Howard's expressed interest in playing a bigger role in the offense and Nash's obvious value as a ball-handler. Coach Mike D'Antoni doesn't have any obligation to give Howard what he wants (and understandably wants to operate through his best offensive player), but considering the injuries that the Lakers are dealing with and the fact that Howard will be a Laker through at least the end of the season, it would make some sense for L.A. to jazz up its offense beyond the unimaginative designs that put Bryant in a position to create a disproportionate amount of the team's looks.
Kobe has been terrific in generating points when put in that position, but in addition to whatever extent that Howard might feel marginalized (a concern that's less glaring as long as his shoulder injury limits what he can contribute), Bryant's deliberate work off the dribble often reduces several of his teammates to being standstill non-contributors. Limited though the Lakers' supporting cast may be, the lack of schematic help in those situations is striking. Freelancing through Bryant with some loose offensive principles certainly can work to an extent, but this group of role players would be better served by more focused directives in terms of off-ball movement, lest L.A.'s fortunes rest solely on Kobe's ability to draw double teams or score on difficult attempts.
• Although Chris Andersen's box score contributions on Sunday were unimpressive (zero points, three rebounds, two blocks in 13 minutes), he still manages to do a lot of good for the Heat in relatively short bursts. In fact, the sporadic nature of Andersen's stints actually aids his performance. As a non-essential contributor, Anderson is able to fill whatever bit of playing time necessary without conserving energy, unleashing the full extent of his frenzied play without regard for fatigue or foul trouble.
The result is a player averaging 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes, but one who helps unapologetically, runs the court and fights for extra possessions. Anderson would have to employ more restraint if the Heat needed him for longer stretches of the game, but as it stands he's able to introduce some productive chaos without compromise. It can be tough to draw real value from a midseason free-agent addition, but Andersen's talents are perfectly suited for the limited role that the Heat needed to fill.