Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol Warn Heat How Hard Getting Up for 3rd Title Run Is

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Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol Warn Heat How Hard Getting Up for 3rd Title Run Is
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MIAMI — There wasn't much left of the 2010-11 Lakers, even before the Dallas Mavericks tore them to tatters, sweeping them out of the second round.

There's even less left now.

Just three players—Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake—from that squad remain employed by the Lakers, though only one (Gasol) is currently ambulatory, as Bryant and Blake heal from their latest injuries. Bryant often appeared anxious to avert his eyes during the Heat's 109-102 victory, a contest as choppy and unnecessarily challenging as so many of Miami's others this season.

The Lakers don't have heroes anymore. They do, however, have historians.

So it was interesting to hear the perspectives of Bryant and Gasol as they watch the Heat try to do what they could not in 2010-11: reach a fourth straight NBA Finals and win a third straight championship.

"We were in the exact same position," Gasol said.

Just about. And while they won 57 games in 2010-11, the same number as the season before, there were some signs of sloth and slippage. They were 31-12 through 43 games, the same record the Heat hold now. But whenever they appeared to be rounding into elite form, they would fall back—for instance, they followed a stretch of 17 wins in 18 games in February and March by dropping five straight in April.

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"It's not easy to sustain that motivation, that energy, that edge," Gasol said. "Especially when you start getting injuries from guys who have gone through long runs consecutively."

That Lakers team had brought back nine core players from their 2009-10 team as well as the coach; the Heat have brought back the entire nine-man rotation from their 2012-13 team as well as their coach.

"The body also feels it, and it's a difficult position to be in," Gasol said. "It's a great position to be in, but at the same time you start seeing maybe cracks here and there, and those cracks can open up later on. But every team and every situation is a little different, so I don't know exactly how they're doing internally."

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Bryant has actually gone for three straight championships twice.

The first time, in 2001-02, the Lakers were ultimately successful, though they were often listless during a 58-win season that tied for second in the Western Conference.

"Having a competitive spirit night after night is very, very tough to do, for three championships in a row, four Finals in a row," Bryant said. "It's tough, it's tough to get guys going. The most important thing is being ready when the time is right. You got to make sure you have everybody healthy and make sure your competitive spirit is ready to go when the playoffs come around. That's really the most important time.

"It's like a malaise that kind of sets in with the team." 

The Lakers never shook that malaise entirely in 2010-11.

"You expect to win again, you want to win again," Gasol said. "We didn't finish with the best record. We finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference, and things weren't clicking from the first round. David West went down, and we were supposed to have an easy first round against New Orleans, but we struggled. And the struggle continued in the second round, and we were done."

The Mavericks won three straight relatively tight games, then ripped them by 36 in Game 4, with Andrew Bynum compounding the embarrassment by clotheslining J.J. Barea.

"Everything mattered, and everything counted at the time," Gasol said. "Probably our bodies, even if you don't want to think about it and try to fight through it, the wear and tear happens."

Is this happening to the Heat?

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LeBron James (who had 27 points and 13 rebounds on Thursday) has acknowledged that Miami is mentally fatigued from facing so many games—and so many teams playing at peak levels—over the past three-plus years.

But there are some differences.

First, the younger Erik Spoelstra hardly seems burned out, as Phil Jackson did, during the latter's last year of coaching. Second, even if the Heat enter the postseason as the East's second seed, it's hard to see any third-seeded team in the sorry conference giving them as much trouble as the balanced, experienced, eventual champion Mavericks gave the limping Lakers in 2011. Third, the stubborn Bryant insisted on pushing through his persistent knee problems in 2011, playing all 82 games, while the Heat continue to nurse Dwyane Wade, as the 10-time All-Star selection missed his 13th game of 43 on Thursday.

Finally, James, who recently turned 29, is more than three years younger than Bryant was during that 2011 postseason.

"LeBron has been doing a fantastic job of keeping the guys going with his own energy," Bryant said. "That's his responsibility, is to keep guys engaged. Then the time rolls around, hopefully the other guys will get charged up and ready to go as they move into the playoffs."

Hopefully for the Heat, anyway.

So how is James trying to do that?

"Just by motivation," James said after Thursday's win. "When I go out on the floor, I try to play like it's the last game I may play ever in my career, and they just try to follow me. Those guys follow me. I mean, we can do something very special here. And we have an opportunity to do it. You know, and for me, I just love the game so much, and I love when I'm on the floor. I love to lead this group. And they love following. It's my job, as one of the leaders of this team, to make sure they are in tune and they are ready. Now it's not going to result in a win every night, but hopefully we can be in tune for most of the nights."

And, perhaps, in April, May or June, they won't be singing the same sad tune as those long-ago Lakers.

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