Thursday night was a case of a team looking better in defeat than it has in some victories. The Los Angeles Lakers played with heart, hustle and fought with the world champions for 48 minutes.
But even though they are 17-22, this game, this effort showed me that the Lakers are not that far away.
Tonight was a winnable game in spite of 16 first-half turnovers and 20 overall. It was 90-90 after Kobe Bryant's three-pointer with 2:30 remaining, but Bryant was largely smothered by James and Dwyane Wade, who was 8-of-25.
Steve Nash was careless at times with the ball and Dwight Howard shot just 5-of-13 at the free-throw line, including two big misses with the score 92-90.
And yet, there were more than just moral victories.
The defense looked as active and consistent as it has all year. I give more credit to James and Wade than I place blame on Los Angeles' defense tonight. Those are just a pair of the best offensive finishers in the game.
So let's look at this game on a level basis. Because as I said before, while this was a nice sizzle game, the steak comes over the next month for the Lakers.
Rebounding. The Lakers out-rebounded Miami 42-35, and much of that gap closed because of the misses late in the game. Howard and Earl Clark looked like the bigger duo, combining for 23 rebounds. The team only allowed four offensive rebounds, and after a ragged start to the game, did a great job of making Miami earn its points.
Pau Gasol: "The Spaniard" returned and looked sharp, scoring 12 points with four rebounds and four assists. Even more encouraging, he was aggressive in the paint, save for an ill-advised three-point shot in the first half.
This was punctuated with a fierce slam off a pass from Metta World Peace. That's the kind of finish at the rim Gasol needs to have going forward.
Effort: It's an intangible thing, but it was highly evident. The Lakers played hard and they sold out. It took a great game from the best player in basketball to defeat them. There is no shame in that. However, if they go back to being the "Hollywood" Lakers in Toronto on Sunday, this will have gone for naught.
Turnovers. For a while, it looked like the Lakers might get 30-plus turnovers. They had 10 in the first 13 minutes. Overall, 16 in the first half. Miami's first four baskets were ferocious breakaway dunks coming directly off of turnovers. The margin of error is just not big enough for this team to overcome that on a consistent basis, and not against elite teams. 20 turnovers is only good if you work for Pepperidge Farm.
Kobe Bryant: Yes, he had a solid spurt in the fourth quarter. But the Kobe System had a virus in it tonight as Bryant was largely silent for the first three quarters. By that point, the Heat had built an eight-point lead.
It ended up being too much for the Lakers to overcome. Compounding that, Bryant was not the defensive presence he had been against Cleveland and Milwaukee as Wade scored 27 points on 11-of-20 shooting. Not a good night for the Black Mamba.
And in many ways, these are the same problems that will plague the Lakers the rest of this season.
They are just a sloppy team offensively. Too careless with the ball, which leads to transition buckets for the opposition. When they are efficient, they are much better; that goes without saying. The question is, when will the obvious begin to bear out on the court?
So yes, the big ticket lived up to the hype. As the All-Star break approaches, the Lakers should be encouraged. But it is time to start proving that the talent equates to consistent winning. And Sunday is the perfect start. Beat the Raptors and use it as a springboard to get the Lakers' road woes in order.
It all comes down to effort. Less Hollywood and more downtown and this team will be okay.
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