Heat vs. Lakers: Win over Miami Shows L.A. Is Turning into a Contender

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Heat vs. Lakers: Win over Miami Shows L.A. Is Turning into a Contender
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After relying heavily on Kobe Bryant to carry the team, the Lakers might be back on track as a balanced contender in the West

After defeating the Miami Heat on Sunday, the Lakers put the rest of the NBA on notice.

They are back as a team to watch for in the West.

Now, I'm not crazy. The Lakers are still behind Oklahoma City until they can beat them. They won't face San Antonio until next month when they meet three times in nine days.

But right now, they may be finally showing their potential after an up-and-down season so far.

What the Lakers proved against Miami was that they can still get up for a big game when something's at stake. The most impressive number wasn't Kobe Bryant's 20 points in the first half or his 33 overall—it was how they held Miami to 37.5 percent shooting from the field.

Metta World Peace turned back the clock with a stellar defensive effort on LeBron James. Lakers fans know this can't be expected all the time, but if World Peace digs within himself to find motivation like that, he'll be the wild card of the team.

It's true the Heat didn't have Chris Bosh in uniform Sunday, but what's also true is that the Lakers shut down Dwyane Wade, who was virtually a non-factor before fouling out. Despite their inconsistent offense, the Lakers' defense can be good enough to carry them in almost any game.

Andrew Bynum is settling more into his role as a double-double, defensive presence. And what more can you say about Kobe Bryant? Three games after breaking his nose in the All-Star Game, and he's scored more than 30 points in each game.

It's become impossible to find any more words to describe how well Bryant played this year, and Lakers fans—as well as NBA fans—had better start appreciating this run, because it continues to reveal just how unique Bryant is in this era or any era for that matter.

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Sunday was also a clear reminder that teams will have a hard team beating the Lakers at home (17-2 record). That's a good sign since the Lakers have home dates with Boston and Oklahoma City this month, and as the Lakers head on the road, they should feast on Detroit and Washington before a tough test with Minnesota on Friday.

But before we place them in the West title chase, their problems aren't gone yet.

Pau Gasol had a quiet 11-point, 10-rebound game, and if the Lakers are going to go anywhere, he has to regain his focus.

However, if Gasol is still with the Lakers after the trade deadline, expect him to be more productive as worries about his future will be safe for another year. 

The Lakers' point guard troubles are still visible, but between now and next week's trade deadline, the team could change that. Rumors are swirling that they could trade for either Raymond Felton or Jose Calderon, and should they get either or a similar type of floor general, that issue might be a thing of the past.

This team also has to rise on the road and get consistent bench production. The difference between the Lakers and the top four teams—the Spurs, Heat, Thunder and Bulls—is effective depth. Andrew Goudelock (who continues to be a revelation as a rookie spark plug), Steve Blake and Matt Barnes have to become more consistent as the season winds down. 

For right now, though, the Lakers sent a statement to the rest of the league. After winning eight of their last 10 and beating the Heat, they've got enough left for one more run, and it's up to them to see how far it can go.

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