MIAMI -- For one long-sought night they played the roles they were meant to play. Chris Bosh was the big man who established himself early in the post, LeBron James was the distributor who pushed and rotated the ball without prejudice and Dwyane Wade emerged as the finisher of the Heat's impressive 94-88 win Thursday over the Lakers. Altogether now, they ended a five-game losing streak against the longest odds.
Afterward, Kobe Bryant (24 points) would respond to the frustrations of an 8-for-21 night by returning to the emptied American Airlines floor with three ball boys for more than an hour of intensive shooting that left him drenched. As important as the evening had been to him, it had meant much more to Miami to see through a closely fought victory at long last.
"It's a stubborn group to keep grinding away and continue to put ourselves in that position where you can fail or succeed,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who can now go a day or two without having to hear speculation of his demise (strange as it to hear such in-season rumors about a coach on pace to win 56 games).
We should neither make too much of the Heat's rare win over a contender -- they are now 2-0 against the Lakers and 0-9 versus the Celtics, Bulls, Mavericks and Spurs -- nor diminish the obvious clues of what Miami could yet become. The two-time defending champs had arrived with an eight-game winning streak and a healthy Andrew Bynum (13 points and 12 rebounds) protecting the rim alongside fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol (20 points). Yet the Heat outrebounded them 46-37 and outscored them 46-30 in the paint, thanks to an emotional performance by Bosh (24 and nine).
Two nights earlier, Bosh had declared his intention to plant himself in the paint, demand the ball and fill the interior hole that had been absent in Miami's halfcourt offense. "When you come out in public and say you want the ball, it puts the bullseye on you,'' said Wade.
Bosh's aggression resulted in two quick fouls, but he returned to score 12 second-quarter points and live up to the example he set in the daily shootaround. "It really set the tone for everybody,'' said Spoelstra of Bosh's morning workout. "He was dead serious about his approach and he made sure everyone else was serious about it ... It almost caught everybody by surprise.''
"We had everything riding on this game,'' said Bosh. "I don't have that much big-game experience, but I work hard in this game and at the end of the day it's about believing in myself and making plays, and I do that with the best of them.''
The Heat don't need exceptional performances from all three stars, as James (19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds) and Wade (20 points and five assists) showed by shooting a combined 16-of-40 from the field. But when Bosh is rolling to the basket and commanding defensive attention in the post, the game becomes easier for everyone, and the Heat don't look nearly so weak up front.
Another big gain was made by Mike Miller, who has struggled to make threes since returning in late December from right thumb surgery. He made his initial three in the opening quarter and was instantly plugged in, delivering 12 points and seven rebounds in 16 efficient minutes as he, Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas outscored the Lakers' bench 22-16.
Neither team would lead by more than a half-dozen, once again establishing a need for big plays at the end from a Miami team that has been abysmal in those situations. But the Heat defenders didn't procrastinate: They held the Lakers to 29.3 percent in the second half (including Kobe Bryant's 2-of-11 performance against Wade) and, by coach Phil Jackson's count, "They were quicker to the ball than we were.''
This was a night when Miami's hierarchy made sense, because the roles played by his teammates enabled Wade to overcome a difficult shooting night while breaking open an 80-80 game in the final five minutes. A couple of drives put the Lakers on their heels (84-82), and then Wade followed up a short jumper from the top of the key by slapping the rebound out to James at the three-point line, who replied by instantly assisting Wade on a reverse layup.
Wade would either assist or finish on five straight Miami scores down the stretch, and the lone assist was most important of all. As Bryant isolated and drove left, Wade reached around to strip his dribble, then watched Bibby dive to tap the ball his way. It was relayed by Wade ahead to James for the 90-88 lead that wouldn't be relinquished over the ensuing 1:27.
From there it was the Lakers who wound up looking out of sorts. Artest missed a clumsy three-pointer when nothing more than a two was needed, and then Bryant followed suit with a three that was blocked by Wade. "He fouled the [bleep] out of me,'' repeated Kobe afterward.
After he had finished off the Lakers with a drive around a James screen that pushed the lead to 92-88, Wade was asked about if he had fouled Bryant. "I didn't,'' he said, stifling a laugh.
Then he was asked about Jackson's pregame complaint that the Heat don't share the ball enough and play the equivalent of "Xbox'' offense. Wade couldn't control his laughter any longer. The criticism is going to keep coming, and it was as if he had been reminded at the end of this long agonizing streak how to render it inert. The way to make it all sound funny was by winning the game. He couldn't stop laughing.