Heat 96, Lakers 80: At the buzzer

Fans didn't exactly enjoy it the first time around, but for the Lakers it was the game so nice, they apparently decided to play it twice.

Last Christmas, the Lakers walked into Staples Center for a holiday game against LeBron James and Co. (in this case, the Cleveland Cavaliers), meeting the massive hype of the day by laying a serious egg, losing 102-87 in a game that wasn't nearly that close. This season, the Lakers again hosted James, now with the Miami Heat (in case you missed it) in a game garnering even more hype and anticipation, and once again managed to throw masses of coal in the collective stockings of Lakers fans.

Final score: Heat 96, Lakers 80. And, as it was a year ago, it didn't feel that close.

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For the second straight season (in his second uniform) LeBron James soared over the Lakers on Christmas, this time earning a triple double.

Perhaps those lime green Christmas shoes Kobe Bryant busted out, meant to evoke images of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, were applied too literally?

Here's how it broke down, with the bad news appropriately noted first...

Three Down:

1. The First Quarter. The Lakers have spent most of the season illustrating the value of fast starts. Before Saturday, they'd averaged 27.9 points in the first quarter, and a hefty +4.8 differential. Not much changes the context of a game faster than pulling ahead in a hurry. Of course, the opposite also holds true, as the Lakers saw against the Heat.The problem wasn't defense, but offense. Kobe and Pau Gasol were a combined 0-11 (seven of the bricks belonging to Pau). The rest of the gang was six-of-14, meaning as a group they shot a less-than-robust 24.6 percent.

In (misleading) good news, those hoping the Lakers would force the issue inside were pleased L.A. scored 77 percent of their points in the paint.

Unfortunately, it took 18 shots to get there, and only amounted to 10 points in total as the Lakers scored 13 over the first 12 minutes. Lamar Odom led the way with a grand total of five points. Andrew Bynum hit both the shots he took. Beyond that...


Give credit to Miami's defense, but generally speaking the offense didn't do enough, continuing a trend developing over the last couple weeks. 80 points, including only 15 free throws on your home floor, isn't going to get it done. Expecting the Lakers to roll up 110 on a stout defensive group like the Heat isn't reasonable either, but a middle ground has to exist somewhere.

2. Pick and Roll Defense. In the early going, the Lakers were very effective against Miami's attack, despite effectively doing nothing against the Heat over the first 12 minutes (you may remember a few sentences ago when I noted L.A's 13 point output in Q1...). From there, the Heat grew increasingly more effective, throwing a variety of pick and rolls at the Lakers to great success. For the most part, Erik Spoelstra kept the ball in the hands of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, allowing them to penetrate and create. The pair accounted for 45 points and 16 assists, so it's fair to say they used their chances wisely.

Too often, the Lakers left the Heat too much space to operate. In the third quarter, for example, Wade used a strong screen at the top of the key to create space on Bryant, then shot the gap-- far too large a gap-- left by Lamar Odom for a clean drive to the glass. Even when the Lakers did better work, the Heat were just better. Later in the half, James came over a strong Erick Dampier screen to lose Ron Artest. Bynum showed well, forcing James wider on the dribble, while Artest did his best to recover. James nonetheless stuck a triple over Artest's outstretched (though relatively earthbound) arm.

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You're looking at the high point of the afternoon for Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant.

Similarly quality stands were the exception to the rule. Miami generally got whatever they wanted, not just for their Big Three, but for supporting characters like Mario Chalmers (13 points) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (three-of-five shooting) benefiting from a slew of open jumpers created from the P and R.

The Lakers head to San Antonio Tuesday for massive game against a team fully capable of exploiting the same holes Miami did Saturday. There will be plenty to review come Sunday's film session.

3. Stars. First things first: Kobe Bryant wasn't bad. He distributed well, earning seven of the team's 22 assists, and when the Lakers made a mini-push in the third quarter, it was thanks in large part to Bryant's work in L.A.'s pick and roll offense. By Bryant's lofty standards, though, 6-of-16 from the floor for 17 points- even with the dimes- doesn't qualify as a high end performance. Gasol rebounded from a horrid start (his first bucket didn't come until under six minutes remained in the first half) to finish with 17 points on eight-for-17 shooting along with eight rebounds and three assists, but only made it to the free throw line once, late in the fourth after the game was decided.

There were other culprits. Scour L.A.'s box score (conveniently linked above) and it won't take a basketball savant to find ugly lines (Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Shannon Brown combined for 12 points four-of-18 shooting), but on a night where Miami's stars absolutely went off, from LeBron's trip-dub to an 18 point first half for Chris Bosh, the Lakers didn't get the response from their headliners the game required.

Three Up:

1. Turnovers. Despite incredible problems actually putting the ball in the basket, the Lakers took good care of the ball against a high quality defensive opponent. Only 12 giveaways overall, a number keeping what could have turned a merely embarrassing blowout into something more Vaudevillian in nature. Miami thrives in transition, and managed to turn those 12 giveaways into 13 points. Five came in a two possession stretch in the fourth quarter, when the Heat turned two steals into a driving layup and three-pointer.

The figure also helps explain why the Heat scored only four points in transition, a lower number than the Heat likely figured they'd need to win by 16.

2. Andrew Bynum. He hit his first two shots, a pair of nice hooks in the lane, one spinning left, the other going right. He'd hit another little hook in the second half, made a recovery or two in the lane (one of which resulted in a blocked shot), and grabbed five boards in about 18 minutes of play. While he wasn't exactly the solution to L.A.'s problems on the P and R, he showed mobility. The process of Bynum returning to the form fans want isn't going to be instant, but it's happening. He didn't have an impact in the proceedings- didn't really have much of a chance to, really, but is still moving in the right direction.

3. Behavior. Far as I could tell, the fans didn't throw anything on the court. Given how the Lakers played, call it a minor Christmas miracle.

Much more on this afternoon's Yuletide debacle to come...