The media may have immersed themselves in this rhetoric that this game was going to be a payback game for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers (23-14), but this is nothing more than a gut check for a team many think has passed its glory days as champions or even title contenders.
Kobe's 18-point first quarter performance may have carried a message to Dwyane Wade that a broken nose isn't enough to stop him. In fact, Bryant probably doesn't completely hate the idea of wearing that "sauna"-hot mask for who knows how long since he's averaging 34 points on 54.3% shooting since becoming "The Masked Mamba".
His offense has been sharper. Before the All-Star game, Kobe allowed the defense dictate where and how he takes his shot way too often. Since then, Bryant has been reading the defense a lot better and has been more creative in when he takes his shots. That adjustment has been throwing off the opposing defense and even made Shane Battier, an excellent defender, look helpless.
But Bryant's improved attack isn't the best thing that's ever happened to the Lakers since losing to the Thunder. They're moving better. They're shooting better. And they're defending better.
Then again, playing at home the last 3 games may have a lot to do with it. So we'll see if that sense of urgency carries over for 5 of the next 6 games — all on the road.
Defense and their inside game were keys for the Lakers against the Heat. The Heat owned the NBA's best shooting percentage at 49.5% coming in to the game and are at their best when they're running the floor. But the Lakers took care of that by holding them to 37.5% shooting and 17 fast-break points.
Chris Bosh could've helped the Heat. But watching how the Lakers played defense on Sunday, I'm not so sure if he could've made that much of a difference against Gasol. Besides, I don't think Bosh could've outshined Pau Gasol at Staples Center. He certainly didn't in Miami last time.
If there was anything that hurt Miami in the end, it was Wade's 5th foul with 5:14 left in the 4th quarter. Without Bosh and Wade, Lebron James had to carry his team against an inspired Laker team. Not to mention against the defense of Metta World Peace who's been playing like the old Ron Artest lately.
Defensively, Metta has always been a key guy against teams that have bonafide scorers. And if his conditioning is now allowing him defend guys like Lebron and giving him better lift on his jumpshots, it would be foolish to overlook the Lakers in the playoffs.
Gasol and Andrew Bynum were solid again for the Lakers. Pau didn't score anywhere near the 26 points he put up in the previous meeting against the Heat, but his 11 points and 10 rebounds were more than enough against a Bosh-less Miami frontline. Being called an All-Star for the first time in his 7-year career has done wonders for Andrew. He seems to have finally grasped the idea Phil Jackson has been trying to sell him for years that his defense, a lot of times, goes further on this team than his offense. He tallied 4 blocks against the Heat on Sunday because he was out there challenging nearly every shot that goes up around the basket. That's what he has to continue to do for this team, but he has to commit himself mentally for that to become a permanent part of his game. Andrew finished with 16 points and 13 boards.
Steve Blake and Andrew Goudlocke were huge for the Lakers as well. Blake did a great job of taking over for Derek Fisher after foul trouble relegated Fish on the bench. He made sure the offense ran through the proper player on every possession and defended Mario Chalmers rather well. His 6 assists for the afternoon is the kind of stuff the Lakers need out of their point guard on a daily basis. That's probably a long reach with Derek and Steve, but at least, Mike Brown knows it's possible even for one game.
Goudlocke didn't have that big of an offensive game, but his 2 bombs from distance in the 2nd quarter were huge in keeping Miami back on the passenger seat. Those 3-pointers turned a single-digit Laker lead back up to double digits. That may not seem significant on the surface but those shots gave the Lakers a 50-38 halftime lead. The way they were playing defense combined with their efficiency on offense, that 12-point lead might as well be a 22-point lead for the Heat to figure out how to rectify in the 2nd half.
Things might have been different if Bosh and Wade were available for Miami the entire game. But to stop the Laker team this fully engaged as a unit, you'll need to play elite-level defense starting with Kobe for at least the entire 4th quarter. That's difficult to begin with. And with Bryant already playing with a chip on his shoulder, that job becomes a daunting and frustrating task. Look what it did to Wade and Battier.
Erik Spoelstra was smart enough to read between the lines that Kobe was going to humiliate anybody he puts on him. That's why he didn't bother putting Lebron on Bryant down the stretch and risk losing that one guy working best for him all day long on offense by fouling out alongside Wade.
This is a big win for the Lakers. This game validated that they can accomplish even a monumental job of stopping the Heat when they're on the same page. The thing is can they translate all of that gusto on the road?
We'll find out starting Tuesday in Detroit.
Player of the Game
Metta World Peace: Kobe may have been the man for the Lakers, but the win wouldn't have been possible without this guy hounding Lebron and his 17 points.
@ Detroit Pistons
Tuesday, March 6 at 4:30 p.m. (PST)
The Palace of Auburn Hills
TV: KCAL (Los Angeles)
Radio: 710/1330 AM ESPN
Game Highlights (by LakersHDHighlights24)