Some games just mean more. Rivalry games. Games versus potential playoff opponents. Measuring stick games.
The Lakers/Heat tilt this afternoon represented the latter and, today at least, the Lakers showed that they do measure up. Yes, Chris Bosh was absent. And that left the Heat with big man depth issues. But with LeBron playing out of his mind and Dwyane Wade still one of the truly elite players in this league, the Heat don’t lack talent. But today that talent didn’t matter. Today, the Lakers were the better team.
It started with Kobe Bryant. Maybe the broken nose and concussion was on his mind. Or maybe he simply saw this game as an opportunity for the Lakers to show their mettle. Or, maybe this was just Kobe being Kobe. Whatever it was, though, #24 came out on mission to control this game and did a very good job of it.
From the outset he had a bounce in his step, taking it to the Heat and Wade at every opportunity. Kobe did most of his early work in the post, bullying Wade down low with power back downs while using his shoulder to create separation to shoot his turnaround jumper. After two such shots from the right block, Kobe took Wade to the left side, froze him with a shoulder fake, pump faked to get him in the air, then buried a jumper after taking the hit for the and-1. And on his day went, consistently attacking the paint and working expertly off the ball to free himself up for clean jumpers. Kobe’s terrorizing of Wade got to the point that the Heat moved Shane Battier onto him in order to slow him down (which, to Shane’s credit, he did). But by the time that Battier started to defend Kobe better, the damage was already mostly done. Kobe dropped 18 points in that first period and the Lakers seized control of the contest in the early going.
As the game went on, though, it wasn’t just Kobe that was playing well but the entire team that brought that same energy and intensity. Especially Ron-Ron and Andrew Bynum.
As has been the case in the prior two games since the all-star break, Bynum showed that he’s fully healthy and ready to raise his game to levels not yet seen. His work in the post was both brutish and tactical. He bullied Joel Anthony to earn deep position on the left block and patiently worked the middle of the floor with his righty jump hook. When the Heat decided that they wanted to send a second defender in his direction to disrupt his rhythm, Bynum showed great patience by kicking the ball out and then reposting with power. When the hard double came, Bynum showed his comfort level in this offense by directing traffic from the block by pointing teammates to spots on the floor to not only give himself better passing angles but to open up spots on the floor that would better enable him to get off good shots. On several possessions, you could tell that Bynum was playing chess by manipulating the defense to get the result that he wanted. Considering where he was early in the season in regards to this aspect of his game, Bynum’s growth as a passer may impress me as much (if not more) than his raw numbers.
And then, of course, there was Ron. Intensity. Energy. Activity. Defensive presence. Offensive production. Ron was all this and more today for the Lakers and, despite Kobe’s tremendous scoring outburst in the 1st quarter, he was probably the first half MVP (and deserves a game ball too). He pestered LeBron all over the floor on defense by bodying him up and denying easy entry passes. On some possessions, James was forced to 5 feet beyond the three point line to make a simple catch of the ball and once the catch was made, Ron used his instincts and quick hands to vary his looks and disrupt James’ game. And while LeBron still got his 25 points, it took him 26 shots to get there while only taking 3 free throws. Stopping LeBron really isn’t possible but making him work hard while denting his efficiency is the goal, and that’s exactly what Ron did today. I really can’t say enough about his effort on D and when you add in his 17 points on 6-10 shooting (including 2-4 from deep) the only word to describe his day was special.
Of course, this game didn’t come without its issues. After the Lakers brought a 12 point lead into the 3rd quarter, the Heat switched up their lineup by replacing an ineffective Udonis Haslem with Shane Battier. This smaller lineup gave the Lakers issues by putting Shane on Kobe defensively and while leaving Pau to cover him on offense. Battier’s effort in defending Kobe was superb, as he used all his old tricks to get Kobe out of rhythm. On some possessions he fully denied him the ball. On others he half fronted and then forced Kobe to his left hand off the catch. Then he’d front the post and hold him on the weak side in order to avoid Kobe shaking free in the Lakers’ screen game. On offense, his ability to stretch the floor and occupy Gasol meant the Lakers either had less resistance at the rim on LeBron and Wade’s drives, or a wide open Battier taking rhythm jumpers.
The other issue was how LeBron was able to lock in on defense and essentially erase Gasol as a viable post option. LeBron – who, by the way, is likely the league’s defensive player of the year so far – sat in Pau’s lap by fronting the post and throwing off the timing of the Lakers’ sets. And while Pau was still able to get a couple of offensive rebounds with LeBron giving up angles to the hoop when shots went up, Pau was clearly frustrated in dealing with James’ athleticism and quickness (even picking up an offensive foul when battling for position).
However, despite these issues, the Lakers still worked their game on both sides of the ball to come out on top. Their pressure defense bothered LeBron and Wade into tough shots (and for Wade, offensive fouls) that changed the tenor of the game in the 4th period. When Wade fouled out trying to deflect a lob pass to Bynum, the Lakers simply clamped down on LeBron further, got the ball to Kobe on offense (where Kobe hit some shots that still make me get out of my seat after all these years) and took the game.
And ultimately, that’s what matters here. The Lakers took this game. The Heat didn’t give it to them. There weren’t a bunch of sloppy plays or unforced errors by Miami. LeBron didn’t choke and Wade, despite fouling out, didn’t do anything different than what he’d normally do. Today, the Lakers were just the better team. They took the Heat out of their collective comfort zones and tilted the game in their favor by sticking to their game plan better than the Heat stuck to theirs. What this means for the future is yet unknown, but for today, I don’t care about that. Today, all I care about is that this Lakers team is playing better than they have at any point in the season.