The Lakers fought the good fight and did plenty of things right against the defending champs, but fell short 99-90. Games like this are especially tough to swallow for a variety of reasons but mostly because the Lakers had a really good shot to win this game and because a win against a top flight team could have really catapulted this team forward. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
For most of this game, both teams traded body blows by attacking the weaknesses of their opponent. The Heat turned up their defensive pressure, forcing countless Laker turnovers, and then turning those miscues into easy baskets. Miami’s first four baskets came on dunks, all of them the result of strong ball pressure and Laker giveaways. All night Miami played tight on ball handlers, forced the Lakers into making forced passes to teammates that were barely open, and then repeated the process until they either stole the ball or forced a tough shot.
Especially vulnerable to the pressure D were the Lakers guards. Steve Nash (4) and Kobe Bryant (6) combined for half of the Lakers 20 turnovers, mostly on the types of plays they need to handle better. As I wrote in the game preview, the Heat blitzed Nash on the P&R, showing immediate and heavy ball pressure whenever he initiated the action. The hedge man was super aggressive stepping out to deter his driving lane and the original defender chased over the pick aggressively to catch up and pester Nash from behind. Too often Nash was caught in no-man’s land, between the point where he could make an easy read to an open teammate or create offense for himself. Meanwhile Kobe simply couldn’t find the right rhythm to his game for too long, often looking to pass when his teammates weren’t ready or trying to force the action into the post when there wasn’t a good passing angle available.
Behind the Heat’s ball pressure there was also great recovery all over the floor. With the Heat trapping and pressing up on strong side passing lanes, you’d figure there would be openings on the backside or in the post but there simply weren’t. At least not for long. The Heat flew around the floor, closing up those angles quickly and shifting their D to deny post entries in the process. All in all, the Heat played to their strengths and took advantage of the Lakers’ lack of footspeed and capable ball handling besides Nash to swallow up the perimeter offense of the Lakers.
The Lakers, however, weren’t going to simply let the Heat dictate the terms of this game all night. When the Lakers found a way to not turn the ball over, they slowed the pace of the game down and attacked the Heat methodically on both ends of the floor. Yes, Miami’s ball pressure on D was fantastic, but the Lakers did find ways to crack the code on multiple possessions, swinging the ball to open shooters or getting the ball into the paint where they could use their size to finish or earn foul shots.
Defensively, when the Lakers were able to slow the game down, they did a good job of contesting shooters and packing the paint the best they could. Miami still found slivers of light to get inside and score at the rim, but that mostly came on P&R’s where the bigs sat below the screen and invited the mid-range shot. The Heat were still able to force the action enough to get inside, however, and produce enough good shots from inside 15 feet to keep their offense relatively effective.
So, throughout the game both teams kept going at each other, the Heat making a run playing to their strengths and then the Lakers hitting some timely shots and getting the ball into the paint to play to theirs. Back and forth they went all the way until the final two and a half minutes of the game where the score was tied at 90.
But, then, right when it seemed the game could go either way, LeBron happened. Of the last 9 points of the game, LeBron scored 5 of them and assisted on the other 4. After setting up Wade and Ray Allen for good (though tough) shots, James hit the dagger jumper that pushed the lead to 6 with only 49 seconds to go. On the other end of the floor he defended Kobe (more on his night in a second) and essentially denied him the ball or contested his shots to the point that he couldn’t make a meaningful play. With LeBron carrying them down the stretch, that was the ball game.
Ultimately, there were some good big picture signs in this game with some concerns sprinkled in. Kobe found his offense in the 4th quarter and was key to the Lakers making their push, but for the rest of the game he couldn’t buy a basket. He looked a bit worn out in this game, chasing Wade off the ball for most of the night, getting crushed on screens in the P&R, and then having to try and create offense on the other end. Tonight simply may end up being a bad game that we forget in a few days, but it’s also something to watch for as Kobe expends a ton of energy on both ends of the floor. On the good side, the team is clearly more engaged on D and is doing a much better job of finding shooters and contesting shots while still protecting the rim. They won’t face a LeBron and Wade every night, and when they don’t some of those explosive drives will be bottled up better.
At this point in the season, I’m not too into moral victories simply because the hole the Lakers are in is quite deep. However, it’s also fair to say that this team is getting closer to being the team many thought they could be earlier this season. Dwight is looking healthier, they’re starting to work out a rotation that makes sense, and they’re getting healthier. Combine all that with improved defensive attentiveness and improving chemistry on offense and this team is getting better. Whether it’s too little too late will only be known with more time. But the foundation is finally starting to take hold and, with that, there’s reason to have some hope.