Even in defeat the Lakers looked like a championship team. They were beaten in Miami by a rival contender that couldn't afford a sixth straight loss. "We had everything riding on this game," admitted Chris Bosh after leading the Heat with 24 points in a 94-88 win Thursday.
The Lakers were under no such pressure. The eight-game winning streak that ended in Miami had been built upon wins against the Spurs, Thunder and Hawks, and over the long weekend ahead they'll be tested by the Mavericks and Magic. As opposed to earlier this season, the two-time champions will be approaching the final five weeks of the regular season from a position of strength.
Kobe Bryant (25.1 points per game) may yet turn out to be the league MVP in his 15th NBA season. After playing 40 minutes and outscoring Dwyane Wade 24-20 while holding him to 9-of-23 from the field, Bryant had enough energy to return to the court after the game for more than an hour of shooting practice that left him in need of another shower. At this time last year, Bryant faced real concerns about the health of an injured knee. But this season his minutes are down to 33.8 per game and he has the Lakers peaking at the right time.
Andrew Bynum has looked more than solid while protecting the rim during the recent streak. His double-double presence around each basket helps liberate Pau Gasol to score and create where he happens to find space ... but haven't we been through all of this before?
Lamar Odom has reminded the league that he would be an All-Star as a starter for many teams. Ron Artest has been containing some of the league's top scorers lately, including LeBron James on Thursday (19 points on 7-of-17 shooting), and Matt Barnes has returned to provide perimeter defense and deep shooting off the bench. The formula of Kobe and the three big men may be impossible to beat in a seven-game series, especially now that the Celtics have traded center Kendrick Perkins. "We didn't understand that one," said Lakers assistant Brian Shaw. "Especially since our strength is supposed to be our size."
"They're very long," said Wade, as if he'll never quite get used to looking up at Bynum, Gasol and Odom. "One thing you need do is try to limit them to one shot." The Heat triumphed because they outworked the Lakers on the boards -- including an 18-13 advantage in offensive rebounds -- but L.A. leads the league in rebounding percentage (51.9 percent), and that superiority will grow in importance in the slower, more intensive setting of the postseason.
Before the game Wade laughed when asked if he'd believed the reports of the Lakers' demise following their loss last month to the Cavaliers. "Just go back and read all my quotes," he said. "I laughed at it. The Lakers will be fine. It's not like they weren't in the playoff picture -- they still were in the top three in the league. That's just where they're at, the caliber of franchise they are. I never worried about them for one moment."
To make his words clear: Wade never worried on their behalf, but he surely had concerns about facing them. Perhaps the Heat can view the Lakers as an example of patience, of working through the difficulties of the regular season. The difference is that one team has been through this year after year, while the other is just now learning to play together. And then in June, size usually prevails.
Nate McMillan, isn't it something that you and your own former coach, George Karl, received extensions on the same day? You've both adapted numerous times to excel despite the absence of your best players, you've each succeeded in developed younger players to fill in and take over, and you're each on the shortlist for the coach of the year award. I don't think of you as kindred spirits, but you share a stubbornness in keeping your teams in playoff contention when you had every excuse to recede.
Chris Bosh, you joined two accomplished stars -- two-time MVP LeBron James and 2006 NBA champion Dwyane Wade -- to become the third option in Miami. But in the larger picture, you are as important as them because they can't win a championship without the kind of inside presence that you provided Thursday against the Lakers. You don't need to live in the paint, just as Pau Gasol doesn't, but you can and should exploit the interior space created by James and Wade on the perimeter.
Kevin Love, you had better keep extending your record, because now that you've given new credence to the stat, someone is going to aim at surpassing you. I've got to admit, I never imagined you could be so prolific. When you entered the league there were questions about your size, and now you've become the NBA's leading rebounder. There were also doubts about your body and conditioning, and here you are producing night after night. People can complain about Kevin McHale's work at Minnesota, but he surely knew how to pick power forwards.
Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas are the next great Lithuanian big men, both positioned to be drafted in the lottery this June and immigrate to the NBA just as Ilgauskas is preparing to leave. Valanciunas is a true center at 6-11, and one highly regarded executive believes he could become the No. 1 pick in the draft. "Valanciunas is the best thing I've seen out of that country since Ilgauskas," he said. "He has a very good IQ, he's tough, he can score and he's the youngest player of the international kids in this draft. Over the last few summers he's made the kind of jumps [in improvement] that you look for."
Motiejunas, 20, is 7 feet and 215 pounds. He has the potential to play either of the big positions, though his thin body and three-point range signal he'll be more likely to step out as a shooter than fight for position in the paint.
Ilgauskas hasn't seen either player. Now 35 and having survived a series of foot surgeries that threatened his early career, he is ready to hand off stewardship of Lithuanian basketball to the new generation. "There's always excitement about national team," he said, "especially with the European Champions coming to Lithuania this summer."
Is he going home for the tournament?
"No, it's going to be too crazy," he said. "It's enough basketball during the season for me at this point. I'll watch it on TV somewhere."
Ilgauskas has done his part. He could have retired years ago to keep collecting his guaranteed eight-figure salary, but instead he worked his way back into the league after undergoing a radical surgery that rebalanced the stress on his foot -- a story that must provide inspiration to Yao Ming, who is facing similar issues during his own frustrating comeback. Ilgauskas followed LeBron from Cleveland to Miami in pursuit of a championship. He said he weighs 245-250 pounds, which is at least 10 pounds lighter than he was early in his career. He has talked about retiring after this season.
"I don't know yet -- we'll see when we get there," he said. "But eventually it will be I've had enough."
All he knows for sure is that the next generation will be more prepared for the NBA than he was. When the Cavaliers made him the No. 20 pick of the 1996 draft, European imports had to overcome leaguewide doubts that they were capable of adapting to the NBA. He was a pioneer, compared to young European players today who grow up watching the NBA with the attainable goal of playing with the best.
"They're a lot more ready than we were," said Ilgauskas of the next Lithuanians. "They have programs set up to the help a lot of the international players now. The game has evolved so much internationally, and these guys look at it differently now."
1. Oscar Robertson: 181
2. Magic Johnson: 138
3. Jason Kidd: 107
4. Wilt Chamberlain: 78
5. Larry Bird: 59
6. Fat Lever: 43
7. LeBron James: 31
8. John Havlicek: 30
9. Grant Hill: 29
10. Michael Jordan: 28
11. Clyde Drexler: 25
12. Walt Frazier: 23
13. Chris Webber: 22
14. Micheal Ray Richardson: 21
15. Charles Barkley: 20