Miami Heat Index: Los Angeles Lakers

Heat Reaction: Grading Lakers-Heat

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
11:50
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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LeBron James and his Christmas acrobatics

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
4:04
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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LeBron's Take
The artwork LeBron James is executing with an ever-increasing degree of difficulty on those highlight dunks set up by teammate Dwyane Wade is largely the result of guesswork.

James and Wade connected on two incredible lob plays in Wednesday’s 101-95 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers that continued to dominate sports highlight shows well into Thursday, which the Heat had off ahead of Friday's game against Sacramento.

The Heat’s Christmas dunk reel has essentially become the gift that keeps on giving.

But James insists he never predetermines any of the dunks he performs in games when streaking down the lane in transition. It’s just a matter of following Wade or Mario Chalmers on the break and making sure he’s in position to create a passing lane.

Those passes tend to come from anywhere at any time. James’ end of the bargain is simple. Just jump as high as possible and figure out the creative aspect at some point while in midair. That was the case in those two dunks Wednesday. First, James filled the lane in transition and caught a no-look lob from Wade before crushing home a dunk with his right hand.

The next one was anything but orthodox, as Wade tossed the ball off the backboard with James jumping off his left leg to swoop in for the catch and finish with his left hand. The play sent shock waves through social media, with Lakers legend Magic Johnson suggesting on Twitter that it was one of the greatest dunks he’s ever seen.

“Any time D-Wade gets it on the break, I just try to chase him down,” James said. “I’m not sure if he’s going to go in for it or if he’s going to throw the lob to me. But I had no idea what he was going to do with it. He was looking at me. I didn’t know where he was going to go with it -- whether he was going to bounce it to me or throw it up. Then he went off the glass, and the only way I could catch it was with my left. I had to improvise. I have to see it again to give you a better description, man.”

James has been on a dunkfest of sorts in recent games, leaving victims ranging from rookies to established veterans in his trail along the way. He has delivered poster-worthy material in each of the last three games. That stretch started when James nearly hurdled Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore in the Heat’s 122-103 home win Friday. It continued Monday with a similar dunk over Paul Millsap, who attempted to draw an offensive foul on James, in the Heat’s 121-119 overtime win against Atlanta.

Then came the Christmas acrobatics with Wade as the setup man.

Heat teammates say they’re often just as surprised as fans when they see James start to measure his steps and gear up for a phenomenal finish at the rim. Center Chris Bosh said he couldn’t even imagine trying to catch and finish some of the insane passes that are tossed into the air for James.

“Amazing athleticism,” Bosh said of the pass off the backboard for James. “If it was me, I probably would have just watched [the ball] go the other way [off the glass].”

Progress Report
Just when it appeared forward Michael Beasley was on the verge of solidifying his role in the Heat’s primary playing rotation, coach Erik Spoelstra revealed it has been a constant challenge to find consistent playing time for the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

After playing 20 minutes Monday against Atlanta in his first game back from a hamstring injury, Beasley didn't play at all during Wednesday’s game against the Lakers. When Chris Andersen was lost for much of the second half due to a sore back, Spoelstra opted for seldom-used veteran Udonis Haslem.

“You know what? I’m going to have to figure that out,” Spoelstra said when asked after Wednesday’s game about Beasley’s absence. “I didn’t want to force it. We had our normal rotation, and the group that was going in the second quarter really sparked us. That’s when I planned to put him in the game.”

Spoelstra has maintained throughout the season that his rotation would remain fluid and could be drastically different from game to game. The unit the Heat used in the second quarter in Los Angeles was Wade, Andersen, Norris Cole, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Miami erased an eight-point deficit and outscored the Lakers 30-19 in that period.

Beasley may have taken a step back in the pecking order after missing seven games before he returned Monday with 10 points and seven rebounds in the overtime win against Atlanta. Spoelstra insists the revolving rotation dilemma, however, is a good problem to have moving forward.

Beasley is averaging 11.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17.8 minutes a game. He is shooting a career-high 53.5 percent from the field.

“His minutes give us something different, no question about it,” Spoelstra said. “We’ll just have to figure it out over the next couple of games.”

Injury Report
Chris Andersen continued to receive treatment on his sore back and neck, which kept him out of the second half Wednesday against the Lakers. He is considered questionable for Friday’s game against the Kings. ... Wade is likely to sit out one game of the back-to-back set that moves Saturday to Portland as part of his maintenance program to rest his knees.

Did You Know?
The Heat are one of the league’s worst rebounding teams, but they are making up for it by pummeling opponents in the paint during their six-game win streak. Miami has outscored teams by a combined 78 points in the paint in that stretch, which included a season-high 32-point advantage against the Lakers on Wednesday and a season-high total of 70 paint points last week against the Kings.

Quote of the Day
“Erik is an unbelievable coach. He’s played to everybody’s strengths, and he’s not afraid to go against conventional wisdom. He’s hard to scout because you don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t even know if they know what they’re doing. But they know how to play basketball. It’s beautiful to watch.”
– Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on Erik Spoelstra’s methods with the Heat

Heat Reaction: Grading Heat-Lakers

December, 25, 2013
12/25/13
8:59
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Kobe, Dwight can learn from Heat duo

November, 9, 2012
11/09/12
4:48
PM ET
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPN.com
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When the principal pieces of the current iteration of the Miami Heat came together, they were given that convenient “Big Three” nickname to recognize Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh making Miami their mutual free-agency destination.

But the moniker has always been a bit of a misnomer. Not to take anything away from Bosh, a seven-time All-Star in his own right, but the two that would determine their title chances were always Wade and James.

The Los Angeles Lakers are going through a similar situation this season. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were brought in to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and the alliance was quickly referred to as a “Fantastic Four.” Yet just like in Miami, there are really two players in that mix who will decide L.A.’s championship hopes -- Bryant and Howard.

“Me and Kobe being the leaders, we can’t focus on the negative,” Howard told reporters Thursday with the team still feeling the aftershock of its 1-4 start. “We can’t sulk into the fact that we’ve been losing games. We got to find a way to overcome it.”

Gasol is technically the co-captain of the team and has already won two rings in the purple and gold and Nash is a two-time league MVP and plays point guard, the position that lends itself to leadership more than any other, but Howard was right to boldly declare the Lake Show are a two-man act.

Bryant and Howard’s challenge to find harmony between their games on the basketball court does not seem nearly as daunting as it did for Wade and James. Bryant is the offense-minded guard and Howard is the defense-minded center, whereas Wade and James had to find a way to minimize redundancy as two slashing wings who liked the ball in their hands every possession.

It took the Heat the better part of two seasons to finally figure out who was the Alpha dog and that process was aided by necessity. Wade was slowed down in the playoffs by a bum left knee, elevating James as the clear-cut No. 1 guy. In retrospect, it seems almost silly that it took so long for things to shake out that way considering James’ ascension as the undisputed best player in today’s game, but remember, James was the outsider joining Wade’s team. Wade was the one who spent his entire career with the Heat. Wade was the one with a championship under his belt already. Wade was the face of the franchise.

Where Howard and Bryant are sure to find it much tougher to come together is off the court. Whereas Wade and James had a strong pre-existing relationship that stemmed from entering the league in the same 2003 draft class, playing on USA Basketball’s senior men’s team together from 2004-2008 and suiting up on the same East squad in numerous All-Star games together, Bryant and Howard don’t have any of those commonalities.

Wade and James are only two years apart in age; Bryant and Howard are seven. Wade and James conduct their postgame press conferences jointly, collaborating on their state of the team address on a nightly basis; Bryant is the first Laker to do postgame interviews these days while Howard is the last, often times more than 30 minutes after Bryant. Bryant and Howard were on that ’08 Olympic team just like Wade and James were, but they didn’t blossom nearly the same type of friendship. A year after Beijing, Bryant denied Howard his chance at a ring when L.A. beat Orlando in the Finals.

Ultimately it was that friendship, I think, that allowed Wade to swallow his pride and open the doors in Miami up for James to run through. He genuinely wanted to see James succeed and was OK if he would be a part of that success, rather than the reason for it. When times got tough in last year’s playoffs, they leaned on that friendship and believed in one another.

Bryant and Howard don’t have that relationship going for them and who knows if they ever will.

On media day, Bryant let everyone know that “it’s my team” even with the infusion of new faces. He made sure to make mention of Howard, saying, “I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his,” but he was keeping the pecking order that put him on top firmly in place.

All the focus for Lakers fans this season seems to be the notion of “Beat the Heat” and winning the championship. Maybe the goal should be “Be the Heat,” however. If Bryant and Howard can develop the type of trust and rapport that Wade and James have together, the Lakers will have their best chance of sustained success. If they don’t, and Bryant treats Howard like an assistant rather than an associate, the Lakers won’t be considered a “Big Three” or a “Fantastic Four.” They’ll just be a guy looking out for No.1 rather than being a team with a legitimate shot at title No. 17.

L.A. View: Heat must master balancing act

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
1:38
PM ET
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPN.com
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Editor's note: Throughout the 2012-13 NBA season we'll be asking our colleagues at ESPN Los Angeles to weigh in on the progress of the Heat's quest for back-to-back titles. This week, Dave McMenamin shares what it's like for a team attempting to repeat.

As hard as it was for the Los Angeles Lakers to beat the Boston Celtics in an epic seven-game series to secure a repeat championship in 2010, the entire season leading up to that point was even harder.

"We have to make sure that we continue to move forward and understand that if we want to repeat as champions, it's not going to be easy," Kobe Bryant said sometime in the middle of that year, after the Lakers had blown a road game against the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. "You got to bring it."

That’s really what it comes down to. After experiencing the thrill of performing on basketball’s biggest stage, a team hoping to make that trip again has to almost trick itself to get up for the daily challenges that an NBA season brings from October through April to set itself up for success from April through June.

If the Miami Heat can bring home back-to-back titles, that will mark a third straight trip to the round that determines the ring -- just like that '10 Lakers team.

The arcs of both teams already look quite similar. L.A. made it to the NBA Finals in 2008 thanks to the infusion of new talent in Pau Gasol, but lost to the Celtics because they weren’t ready yet. That was the 2010-11 season for Miami in a nutshell, when the Heat made it to the Finals thanks to the arrival of LeBron James and Chris Bosh, but couldn’t seal the deal against the Dallas Mavericks because they hadn’t fully grown as a team.

The 2008-09 season belonged to the Lakers as they not only dominated the regular season, but marched through the playoffs hell-bent on taking the title, which they did in five games against the Orlando Magic. Same script, different season for Miami last season, when the Heat seemed destined to win it all from the moment the lockout was lifted.

Then came 2009-10, the culmination for that Lakers team that didn’t go nearly as smoothly as the Larry O’Brien trophy now resting in Jeanie Buss’ office would suggest.

"I think as a team we just have to realize everybody wants to beat us," Lamar Odom said after that same soul-searching Charlotte game. "They really want to beat us."

The Heat had a fair dose of that already when their Big Three first came together and crowds came out in droves at road arenas to see them fail. But it becomes more than the fans. Opposing teams that have championship aspirations themselves use games against you as measuring sticks. Then there are the lottery-bound teams looking to make their season with one win.

When a defending champion has its eyes on June, it's easy to lose focus in those Tuesday night games in February. It’s not getting better in the moment and it’s not getting better for the future.

“All season, it's been about repeating as champions and as the season has shortened, it doesn't seem like we've kept an ability to find a purpose for 'today,'" Derek Fisher said as the playoffs approached in 2009-10.

Even after the Lakers started to figure out how to take care of the day at hand, the only thing that guaranteed them the necessary amount of tomorrows in the postseason to win it all was Bryant secretly getting his knee drained three times throughout the course of those playoffs and Andrew Bynum dragging his bum leg (which would be operated on after the season) up and down the court for 23 straight games without missing a contest.

Meaning that as hard as the regular season is for an aspiring repeat champion, the search for 16 wins in the postseason is even harder.

"If you had to pick a team who had the most to lose and had the most to prove, who would it be?" Odom asked at one point in 2009-10. "Most to lose, most to prove, at the same time ... That's us."

And that’s the conundrum the Heat now have to learn to live with.

The Heat close in style

March, 11, 2011
3/11/11
1:17
AM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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Dwyane Wade
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Dwyane Wade got the best of Kobe Bryant down the stretch on Thursday.

MIAMI -- In retrospect, LeBron James wished he’d missed the last insurance free throw in the Miami Heat’s biggest win of the season.

“It means we still can’t win games by five points or less,” James said. “We still can’t crack that.”

It’s true, the Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers by six points, 94-88, on Thursday night. That nagging record in those five-point games still stands at 5-13. James’ joke wasn’t just a jab at the scrutiny the Heat have been under recently, it was mostly an expression of relief.

That was the overwhelming reaction after they outdueled the Lakers at a clear flash point in the Heat’s season. Getting any win over any team would have eased the burden Miami has been carrying for the past two weeks. Beating the two-time defending champs while they were red-hot and doing it by outplaying them in the stretch run, though, was like hitting a momentum jackpot.

It won’t erase all the problems or the hole the team has dug itself in the standings, but it was a legitimate start.

While the Heat attempted to shake off outside opinions of their closing skills after a spate of recent tight losses, there was no questioning that the team’s confidence in late-game situations looked shaky at best. That was turned around completely in a game in which the desire both teams had to win was palpable.

This time it was Dwyane Wade who was called upon to do the heavy lifting on the offensive end, not so much taking the closing duties from James but working in concert with him. In other words, exactly the style the Heat have been trying to work out for the better part of four months.

One game does not make a season, but it appeared the Heat now have a blueprint to work off. Wade had the ball in his hands in the closing minutes, battling Kobe Bryant at both ends and scoring a valuable victory in the man-to-man battle -- and perhaps within his own team.

Wade made four driving layups in the final five minutes, rescuing what had been a subpar effort as he was exerting energy chasing Bryant. Wade was just 5 of 16 shots heading into the fourth quarter but ended up taking his old role of being the difference-maker by getting the ball at the top of the key and waiting for screens and space to attack.

“I was just being very aggressive,” Wade said. “Coach gave me the ball in spots that I’m used to, where I could read the defense. My teammates did a great job screening for me, and I got to the basket a few times.”

Finishing at the rim is not easy against the Lakers, who feature a back line of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But Wade was able to find gaps amid the long arms to get the ball to the hoop. It was the kind of precision that had eluded he and the Heat in close losses, mostly when James was trying to get to the rim on his own.

This time there was more organization and James took the supporting role. In a crucial play with 46 seconds left, the Heat executed a maneuver that has long seemed missing from the late-game playbook. James set a screen for Wade, catching Bryant by surprise and sending him to the floor.

Instead of taking turns running isolations, both stars got involved in the same action. And it worked, giving the Heat a four-point lead.

“It was a huge point in the game, being up two and being able to execute down the stretch,” James said. “We drew up the play in the timeout and when you draw up a play in a timeout and then go out there and execute it, it makes you feel real good about it.”

The Lakers were not at their best. Bryant struggled shooting after the first quarter, tossing up some wild shots in the fourth quarter while seething he couldn’t get a few calls from the officials.

But the Heat also won the battle for rebounds, loose balls and fast-break points, tapping into areas where they'd been falling short. The Lakers also struggled to get clean shots against the Heat defense, shooting just 6-of-24 in the fourth quarter.

Perhaps the biggest play of the game belonged to Wade. He tracked down a loose ball, saved by Mike Bibby, and fired it to James for a dunk that gave the Heat the lead for good.

Miami wasn’t making those kinds of plays in these kinds of games. But led by Wade, that changed on Thursday.

“I felt like we hadn’t been doing enough of late,” Wade said. “We haven’t gotten defensive stops, we haven’t gotten loose balls and we haven’t gotten the rebounds. I feel we did all that. Just doing the little things.”

And the big things, too.

Lakers at Heat: 5 things to watch

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
11:04
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Bryant and Wade
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images Sport
As mano-a-mano matchups go, it doesn't get much better than Kobe Bryant vs. Dwyane Wade.

The return of the Lakers' championship D
Bad news for the Heat: When the Lakers are fully healthy (read: Andrew Bynum), they execute the brand of pressure, ball-side defense that both Boston and Chicago deploy and that gives the Heat fits. Over the past five games, the Lakers have allowed only 94.6 points per 100 possessions. That's astounding, particularly when you consider that stretch included both Oklahoma City and San Antonio. On Tuesday night, 50 of Atlanta's 83 shot attempts came from 16 feet and beyond and it's not like the Hawks were living at the line. Atlanta couldn't poke the ball inside -- neither on penetration nor by feeding the post. Right now, the Lakers' traps have that old zip, while Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are moving with purpose -- dropping back on pick-and-rolls to prevent the drive, and walling off the paint when the ball moves to the sideline. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant seems locked in, while Ron Artest has finally gotten the message that his presence on the wing is vital to what the Lakers do. The Heat have been too easily lured into long jump shots against pressure defenses, a potential hazard that could be compounded by that ol' Lakers length.

A little help, please.
In the Heat's Tuesday night loss to Portland, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined to score 69 of Miami's 96 points. Meanwhile, players not named James and Wade shot a collective 11-for-31 from the field with two free throw attempts. "Bench scoring" is always a deceptively uninformative stat (if your bench is being pummeled in a close game, that usually means your keys guys are slaughtering your opponent's first unit), but the Heat desperately need the supporting cast to knock down shots from the outside, particularly against a Lakers team that will give you a little room on the perimeter while it packs the middle. The Heat were constructed with this strategy in mind: James and Wade will attack the rim. On those occasions when they encounter a collapsing defense, they'll kick the ball out to an open shooter. That's why guys like Mike Miller, James Jones, Eddie House and now Mike Bibby were brought in. But if those guys, along with Mario Chalmers, fail to convert (or, in Jones' case, are not offered the opportunity), the plan goes off the rails.

Keep the Lakers away from the basket
The entire foundation of the triangle offense is enabling offensive players to get the ball close to the basket. Even as the Lakers were getting mauled by the Heat on Christmas, they attempted almost half of their shots at the rim. Credit Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and, yes, Bosh for contesting everything inside -- particularly penetration -- and, just as important, not fouling excessively. It took pinpoint coordination to limit the damage and the Lakers' three big men still combined to shoot 14-for-18 at the rim. If the Lakers have an Achilles' heel offensively, it's their lack of knockdown shooters on the perimeter. As we saw on Christmas, this allows James and Wade to take up one of their favorite pastimes -- buzzing around the court as defensive rovers. When they're selective and assertive about lending help, James and Wade elevate the Heat to one of the best defenses in the league, something we saw on Christmas. But when they're merely hanging out with no real agenda, or overhelping when the Heat already have an interior presence (see Deng, Luol, Feb. 24, 2011), it can cost the Heat. The tandem did it the right way on Christmas and their defensive presence will be needed again on Thursday.

Your move, Chris Bosh
The Heat's talented but distressed power forward picked an interesting time to kvetch about not getting the ball down in the low post. On Thursday night when he calls for the ball down low, he'll encounter one or more of the Lakers' three towering big men. This doesn't have to be a deterrent for Bosh. For one, he is uncommonly good off the dribble when he's near the basket, especially with that pump fake that can deke even the savviest defenders. Second, drawing the Lakers' defense low will open up space across the court or out on the wing for James and Wade. If those guys move off the ball -- and they did a nice job on Tuesday night -- Bosh is capable of making plays out of the post for teammates. He did it routinely in Toronto. It won't be easy, because the Lakers' team defense covers the post as well as any team in the league, but Bosh has the instincts to succeed down there if he's smart and his teammates make themselves easy targets.

The long-awaited pick-and-roll with the three scorers
Lost amid the hand-wringing over the Heat's fifth consecutive loss on Tuesday night was that they performed extremely well on the offensive end for much of the game. They scored 96 points on 86 possessions, good for an offensive efficiency rating of 111.6 -- the best mark against a winning team since they beat Orlando on Feb. 3. For the first time in a long while, we saw combinations of Wade, James and Bosh cooperating in pick-and-roll action. We saw two Wade-James pick-and-rolls in the first half. In both instances, quality defenders like Gerald Wallace, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum were powerless to stop it. Where were the rotators? Good luck beating James to -- or meeting him at -- the rim. Bosh earned one of his few buckets of the night on a beautifully executed slip screen for an and-1 to start the second quarter. As strong opponents begin to sniff out the UCLA cuts and Hawk sets Erik Spoelstra has grown so comfortable with, it might be time to pressure the defense with the tried-and-true concept of combining two lethal scorers into a single action with the ball. Because James rolling off a screen to the bucket -- where he can finish, pass to an open guy whom the rotator left or kick out to a shooter -- might be the most practical way to break down a defense.

There's always time in the NBA

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
9:45
AM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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LeBron and Kobe
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
On Christmas Day, the Lakers were being written off as old and unmotivated. Things change quickly in the NBA.

MIAMI -- In the NBA, there is always time.

It’s true in games, in seasons, even careers.

Usually it doesn’t seem that way, as the eyes can make things seem absolute. Games appear over at halftime; teams look cooked midway through March; players look surely headed for the pasture. It is true that often perception does become reality.

But history shows that the league is so fragile, sometimes remarkably so, and it guarantees drama. Without falling into a Yogi Berra routine, assuming things are final without their actually being final in such a fluid game can make us look silly. There are 48-minute games, six-month regular seasons and best-of-seven playoff series.

Nothing but time.

That's why the veteran-laden Miami Heat, who know this truth as well as anyone, aren’t freaking out about their recent struggles. Having lost six of eight games since the All-Star break going into tonight’s faceoff with the Los Angeles Lakers, things obviously aren’t bright.

At this very moment in the flow of the season, the Heat don’t look like contenders and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh don’t look like the dynamic trio many assumed they would be. Picking them to make a title run after seeing them getting repeatedly beaten by the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics and recently vanquished by the San Antonio Spurs seems foolish.

But here's the thing: There is always time.

“Things can change very quickly in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There’s countless examples of teams struggling and moving on to having strong postseason.”

From a coach leading a currently embattled team, that sounds like a plea, and it is tempting to quickly dismiss it. But Spoelstra has the NBA axiom on his side. Even if the Heat don’t turn things around, he’ll still be right.

The Heat’s opponent in their latest challenge game, the Lakers, are proof enough. At several points this season the Lakers have looked like they were doomed themselves. After a weak December, Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t even able to practice regularly, and the king of mellow Phil Jackson were raising red flags.

The Heat hammered the Lakers on Christmas, prompting a postgame tongue-lashing from Bryant aimed at his teammates. Miami was in the midst of winning 22 of 23 games, a stretch that sent the Heat to the top of everyone's scientific and subjective power rankings. The Lakers were looking old, slow and uninspired.

Then, during a shaky February and a miserable end to a road trip, they were being beaten by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some in the Lakers organization wondered whether breaking things up by trading for Carmelo Anthony could be a needed elixir.

Now they’ve hit Miami as the hottest team in the NBA and the three-peat is looking like more than a dream. It is the Heat, now, who have absorbed the title of dysfunctional, overrated squad.

Of course, this can all turn again for the Lakers within days or weeks. It’s because ankles and knees are delicate, a slump is always only a week away, and because there is always time.

In their case, the Heat own one of the past decade’s greatest examples of how tenuous things can be. In 2006, they were down 0-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals and staring at a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 3. As Mark Cuban was celebrating big Mavericks baskets behind the bench, the series and the race for a title could easily have been called over. But there was still time -- there’s always time -- and the rest is history.

That is an extreme case; one of the sides might call it a “fluke,” but it illustrates the point. Especially at this time of the season when the playoffs are coming into focus and it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming how things will play out.

Doing that will let you down. History says so, no matter how sure things look. There is always time.

“We could probably lose every game for the rest of the season and make the playoffs,” James said. “The playoffs are what matters.”

Again, this seems like a copout and a defense mechanism for a player on a team in a slump. But James is also correct, literally and theoretically. The Heat’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is one. A win over the Lakers or anyone else means they’re going to be in the postseason. No one thought the Heat would want to just be a “dangerous” team in the postseason, and taking an underdog role is hardly what is expected from them. It doesn’t change the fact that the playoffs just bring more time.

The Celtics proved it last season. After limping into the playoffs by taking it easy and saving themselves in the final weeks of the regular season -- coach Doc Rivers’ strategy basically being “There’s always time” -- they were ready for the second season and came within a game of winning another title.

As he tried to explain the stress the Heat are going through right now, Spoelstra said every game feels like it is a playoff game with all the scrutiny and the pressure on the team. With five losses in a row to potential playoff teams, the Heat might look like a team that's cooked.

But they aren't. It's only March. There is time left to work things out, make changes, get momentum and forget about the current situation. There is always time. Which is why figuring the Heat are done and have no chance isn’t in the spirit of the game.

“We won’t lose confidence in ourselves,” James said. “We’ve got to make sure no one else loses confidence.”

Heat begin their toughest stretch

February, 22, 2011
2/22/11
1:29
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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Dwyane Wade
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport
The Heat face Chicago on Thursday -- the first in a series of tough matchups.

MIAMI – Now 56 games into their season, the Heat have a sterling record but a bit of an unsteady reputation.

They came out of the All-Star Break with the third-best record in the league, right on the heels of the Celtics for the top mark in the Eastern Conference. But they are 0-6 against the teams with the five best records in the league, and 4-8 against the top five teams in each conference.

According to the raw numbers, the Heat have gotten to 41-15 by playing the second-easiest schedule -- though that is somewhat circumstantial because Miami has played 31 road games, the most of any team. The Heat have also played the third-most total games, meaning they’ve had less time off and practice time than most teams, all of which makes their schedule tougher than it looks.

But all of that is about to get settled. The Heat are about to enter the most favorable yet demanding part of their schedule.

Starting Tuesday night against the Kings, the Heat will play 10 of their next 12 games in Miami. They will play 12 of their next 14 against teams currently in playoff position in both conferences.

This week it’s games against the Bulls and Knicks, and next week it is an Orlando-San Antonio back-to-back. In two weeks the Heat start a homestand that includes the Lakers, Bulls, Spurs, Trail Blazers and Thunder.

In short, the Heat are headed for a graduate-level course load in what could become an intense battle for the top seed and a referendum on their championship hopes.

“We think we’re the most improved team since the end of November,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And people are saying that we haven’t played up to par against the best in the league.”

That is what people are saying, especially after the Heat dropped to 0-3 against the Celtics last week. It is also why there’s going to be some pressure on Thursday’s game in Chicago, a team the Heat have not yet beaten, when Joakim Noah is expected back from injury.

“We look forward to the big games and we’ll make sure our focus is there,” Dwyane Wade said. “It is a good thing. We’re going to focus going into the playoffs.”

Though Udonis Haslem is still on the sideline with a foot injury and Mike Miller is recovering from a serious of head injuries, the Heat are generally as healthy as they have been all season. That health enabled them to go into the All-Star break winners of 10 of their last 11 games. They will also get numerous off days and practice sessions during this challenging period.

They have been together since September and worked out many of their major issues. Now is the time for fairly judge them and how good they truly are.

“We’ll find out in the next few weeks,” Spoelstra said. “I think we’re all looking forward to it.”

Heat's 3 biggest pieces are starting to fit

December, 25, 2010
12/25/10
11:41
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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Miami Heat
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
On Saturday, the Heat's three superstars basked in the warm glow of their mutual success.

LOS ANGELES -- Have all the players’ only meetings you’d like, pick up a veteran big man or two and feel free to reshuffle lineups.

What the Heat have something going for them is more basic and vital than the cosmetic changes that have been getting credit for their turnaround. They feature a concentration of talent that's playing together and prospering, an asset that's tough to beat in this sport.

On Christmas afternoon, the Heat won for the 14th time in their last 15 tries, hammering the Lakers 96-80. It was Miami's highest-degree-of-difficulty win of the season.

There were several contributing factors, including another fine defensive effort and a general Lakers malaise that sent Kobe Bryant into a fiery tizzy after the game.

Yet all of those side issues were truly secondary to the combined play of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It may seem obvious but it is also a powerful reality:

When the three of them all play well, the Heat are awfully hard to beat.

On Saturday, they combined for 69 points, 29 rebounds, 16 assists and six steals. Relative to their play over the last month, it wasn’t even impressive. Relative to their play in the first weeks of the season, it was a radical shift.

At the core, that’s why they’ve gone from barely over .500 to routinely thumping opponents.

The Heat have their flaws. Depth is an issue. Dealing with some opposing big men can be troublesome. But their margin for error expands dramatically when Bosh, James and Wade play to their skill levels.

“There’s no question that they carry a heavy load,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But the balance, poise and the trust that we’ve been trying to build is to create a game where we use their talent to make the game easier for the team.”

It was a struggle to find that balance -- a struggle that probably isn’t over -- but the effort has borne fruit.

Early in the season James felt he was playing out of position at point guard as he watched his scoring and shooting numbers plunge. Wade had given up his midrange game, one of his greatest offensive weapons, under the guise of trying to fit in. Bosh looked bewildered at times and admitted he felt lost, resorting to midnight conversations on the team plane to find some common ground.

Saturday was a time to evaluate how far they’ve come.

James is now back to playing mostly the point forward role he flourished in over his seven years in Cleveland. It enables him to be more comfortable and productive, which he demonstrated against the Lakers with his second triple-double over the last week -- 27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals might not have been James at the top of his game, but it was close.

He also shot 8-of-14 from the field, bettering his 51 percent shooting in December after he had converted just 44 percent in November. His shots now come with more confidence and understanding of his place, rather than simply trying to find a random spot from which to jack it up.

Nowhere does this show more than in his 3-point shooting. James was dreadful from 3-point range in November, making just 26 percent of his attempts. He was firing them up at such a brisk rate that Spoelstra may have been prudent to consider fines as a deterrent.

In December, James is hitting at 45 percent and there’s reason. He’s shooting them out of a controlled offense now, generally knowing where the shot is coming from. Oh, he still fires up an out-of-flow bomb once or twice a game. But against the Lakers he made 5-of-6 3-pointers, and four of them confident, spot-up jumpers within the scheme of the offense.

Now on to Wade. Despite playing with a sore knee, he had 18 points, five rebounds and six assists while playing as the point man on the Heat’s effective defense on Bryant. Several times, Wade spun off picks and hit leaning jumpers or waited for the defense to shift away only to attack from the weak side, catching the Lakers sleeping.

At times during the first month, Wade played like he was in chains, waiting for a shot to open up for him instead of making it happen. He would either wait to shoot a 3-pointer from a kickout pass or force a drive into traffic.

Now the midrange creativity is back and it shows.

Wade didn’t shoot well against the Lakers, but he’s still shooting nearly 55 percent in December, a massive jump from his passive November. He's averaging five more points per game during the Heat’s 14-1 run since their loss at Dallas on Nov. 27. Those are meaningful numbers, though just watching the freedom with which he plays now compared to four weeks ago is proof enough.

“That is a tough balance where they can be who they’ve been for years and been so successful and yet strike a balance to have trust [in each other],” Spoelstra said. “I think [Saturday] was probably our best game in terms of that.”

Bosh’s transformation to being his old self -- if not as sharp statistically as James and Wade -- might be the biggest key to the Heat's stride. Playing against a Lakers team loaded with size, Bosh was the clearly the best big man on the floor on his way to 24 points and 13 rebounds.

When the Lakers attempted to limit his 15-foot jumper he likes so dearly, Bosh took the ball to the basket. A month ago in these spots, he was prone to turn passive and allow someone else to pick up the slack. On Saturday, he made seven baskets inside two feet, four more than he’d made in any one game this season.

Bosh's focus on rebounding, especially at the defensive end, has been a vital cog in getting the Heat to become one of the best transition teams in the league. He’s averaging two more boards per game in December than in November. In the process, his effort is allowing Wade and James to run and post the numbers they weren’t putting up during the season's dreary early days.

Put it all together, which is what the Heat have been doing, and you have a team that looks pretty formidable.

The role players will need to have their days -- all championship teams need that. But champions also have great players who play well together, to which the Lakers themselves can attest.

That, of course, was the point of this whole Miami experiment. Currently, that plan is gaining some traction.

“That is the purpose and the reason for us three to come together,” Wade said. “To have that dynamic, to continue throwing things at [other teams]. We want to continue to put pressure on the defense and never give the opportunity to rest.”

Heat at Lakers: 5 things to watch

December, 25, 2010
12/25/10
10:14
AM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Dwyane Wade
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
It might be tough with all the glare, but Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade will be locked in and focused.

Can Kobe and Artest stop Wade and LeBron?
Purely in terms of one-on-one matchups, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest may be the toughest defensive tandem Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have faced thus far this season. Even at 31 years old, Artest is still physical enough to body up James, and the former defensive player of the year takes as much pride in his defensive assignment as anyone in the league. With that said, James has dropped 63 points in two games against Artest while the latter was wearing purple and gold. Artest has successfully tempted LeBron into taking jumpers, but he has to do a better job of contesting shots and closing out. To take advantage of Bryant, Wade needs to move without the ball and get him off balance; Bryant’s at his best when he has the time to dig in to defend. Bryant and Artest make up two of the best isolation defenders you’ll find, but the way the Heat like to run the pick-and-roll, it may not even matter.

Efficiency (Lakers' offense) vs. Efficiency (Heat's defense)
While the Heat continue to find their rhythm with the ball, their defense has stifled most opponents most nights. But as stingy as they've been, the Heat have posted three of their worst defensive performances of the season against system offenses: Boston's meticulous rotation of pick-and-rolls, Utah's flex offense and Orlando's well-spaced four-out/one-in half-court attack. The Heat get after it defensively but, like most teams, can be thrown off their marks when offenses force them into continuous motion, something the Lakers' triangle offense will demand of Heat defenders. When operating effectively in their system, the Lakers will throw far more at the Heat than simple pick-and-rolls at the top of the floor. The Lakers' constant movement will require the Heat to keep their collective head on a swivel. Gamble in those passing lanes, as Dwyane Wade likes to do, and the Lakers will quickly counter by filling that open void. Play Pau Gasol tight on those post feeds, and he'll find a cutter on a handoff or diving to the hoop. The Heat will need every ounce of their quickness and intuition to blanket the court. Watching the crafty Lakers go to work against those strengths will be a lot of fun.

How aggressively will Heat attack?
In the offseason, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that despite the Heat's roster, he wasn't convinced that talent alone could carry Miami to a championship. "It’s not always scorers and talent that wins it. But it’s teamwork that does it," Jackson said in September. The Heat are a far more coherent team than they were a month ago, but they're still leaving a lot of money on the table offensively. No team in the NBA devotes a greater percentage of their shot selection to long 2-pointers and takes a smaller percentage of its shots at the rim than the Heat. Herein lies the biblical struggle for the Heat. Defenses intent on walling off the paint and protecting themselves against penetration are daring James, Wade and, to a lesser extent, Bosh to fire shots from beyond 17 feet. How readily Miami's superstars cooperate, particularly against the Lakers who have so much length in the interior, will tell us a lot Saturday. James and Wade must determine how much they want to make the Lakers' defense work over 48 minutes. Will LeBron, in particular, let the Lakers off the hook by taking a single dribble to the right of a high screen and putting up a 20-footer, or will he pressure the Lakers as he did a year ago today by attacking the rim?

Heat’s revolving door at center
How much Zydrunas Ilgauskas will we see on Christmas? If recent trends offer any indication, it won’t be much. Joel Anthony replaced Big Z midway through the first quarter of the Heat’s Thursday night win over the Suns, and Ilgauskas never returned. The Lithuanian’s six minutes of playing time was a season-low. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has favored Anthony against faster teams that have athletic, stretchy big men who tend to feast on Ilgauskas’ slow feet. With the Lakers likely starting Lamar Odom on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how Spoelstra counters, since Ilgauskas has no business being on the floor unless Andrew Bynum is out there; Gasol and Odom would tear him to pieces. As the Lakers rank as one of the NBA’s most potent offensive juggernauts, Spoelstra may elect to play the defensive-minded Anthony and sacrifice the floor spacing Ilgauskas offers with his mid-range jumper. It would be Anthony’s first meaningful minutes against the Lakers since December 2008.

The Lakers are always around the rim
The triangle offense is designed to find players shots close to the basket, and having three capable big men makes that task even easier. Unlike the Heat, who choose to concentrate their shot selection along the perimeter, the Lakers want to pound the paint every chance they get and use their size to do that. Bynum is gradually becoming healthier. As mentioned above, there's no natural matchup on the Heat's roster to contend with him. Gasol and Odom need no introduction. And it's not just the big men, either. Kobe Bryant takes 7.3 shots per game inside of 10 feet, using his perch in the left post to work. The Lakers' vaunted length also makes them a pesky unit on the offensive glass, where they rank third in the league in offensive rebounding rate. The Lakers will do everything their power to take the fight into the paint where they can wield their size, which means everyone in a Heat jersey must play big Saturday.

Don't buy the indifference: The Heat care

December, 25, 2010
12/25/10
12:05
AM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
Archive
Miami Heat
AP Photo/Morry Gash
They might try to downplay the event, but the stars love to shine on Christmas Day.

LOS ANGELES -- So here's how this works.

On Christmas, the Heat and Lakers will play a game, an important game. It has been anticipated by fans, the league and the media for months. And, believe it, the outcome means a great deal to the players as well.

Not that they’ll admit it.

Even as they engage in all the promotion, most of the players will attempt to shrug off the import of the event. They will pretend it is just another Saturday and invoke a string of “one-of-82” references.

In fact, let’s hear it from LeBron James just to back that up.

“It’s not if we win or they win, it is not going to define our season in any way,” James said. “I think both teams are going to play good because it is the next game. Earlier in my years I looked forward to it more because I was very excited, Kobe was a guy I looked up to in high school. It is not as exciting as it was my first few years.”

OK, now for Dwyane Wade.

“This ain’t my first rodeo, it’s not LeBron’s and it’s not Kobe [Bryant]’s,” Wade said. “It is going to be hyped but it's all for the fans.”

Yeah, right. No one is buying it and it isn’t just because of the generally poor job all the parties do in selling that the game is just a made-for-TV event.

That’s why Wade is unveiling a new commercial on Saturday. And why both James and Chris Bosh are rolling out specially designed shoes that Nike developed months ago. The suits you’ll see the players arriving in and being interviewed in? If they aren’t all brand-new, then they've been saved for quite some time for these photo ops.

Oh, they care. They care, big-time.

They care so much they feel compelled to install a defense mechanism in case things don’t go well, which is why they brush off the hype. But the stars, especially players like James and Wade, live for these types of games.

Their reputations are determined by the playoffs, that is true. But the playoffs don’t go on year-round and right now this is as big as it gets. There’s little use in denying it, which Heat coach Erik Spolestra doesn’t even try to do.

“I think it is a special opportunity for the guys to play on Christmas in a great environment,” Spoelstra said. “Also there will be a lot of people watching. We have several people in the locker room that love games that really mean something to the fans.”

Count this as one that seems to have such meaning. The ratings will likely be large, especially if it is a close game.

Beyond the hype and the eyeballs, it is an important game for both teams. It’s a test of just where the Heat, who assembled themselves to knock the two-time defending champion Lakers off their perch, are in the process everyone has been watching so closely.

It is also a test for the Lakers, who have been skating along against the easiest schedule in the league while not yet showing much of the championship form of the past two seasons.

From a purely statistical perspective it is a matchup of the NBA’s best offensive team -- the Lakers average nearly 106 points per game -- and one of the league’s best defensive teams -- the Heat haven’t allowed an opponent to break 100 points in 14 consecutive games. Whose will wins out, no matter what the calendar says, has meaning as the teams judge their progress.

Simply, the laissez faire routine doesn’t hold water. The players know it and, in the end, they know you know it, too.

“All coaches and players downplay everything, so you never get a sense of how much it really means,” Wade said. “You’re not going to get it from me. So it is a great game to play in because it is on Christmas and it is in L.A. That’s a great storyline.”

The gift of rejection pays off for Heat

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
1:50
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Gasol and Bosh
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Free agency rejection in 2009 was the best thing that ever happened to Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley.

Was it more about Khloe or Kobe?

Even now, the mystery remains unclear when attempting to dissect one of the most critical free agency failures of Pat Riley's administration with the Miami Heat.

The offseason target was Lamar Odom.

The mission was to appease increasingly impatient Heat star Dwyane Wade, who was reluctant to even consider a contract extension unless there was clear evidence of a roster upgrade.

The result was a huge whiff. Odom never arrived. Wade didn't sign. And in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to Riley, Wade and the Heat.

The NBA delivers a Christmas Day present at the Staples Center with Saturday's star-studded showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and Heat. But one team should be thankful for an even bigger gift.

The gift of rejection.

Two summers ago, Odom and, to a lesser extent, Ron Artest, spurned free agency offers from the Heat to sign with the Lakers. Had either ended up in South Beach instead of Southern California in 2009, it could have ultimately knocked the Heat out of play to hit their jackpot last summer when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Wade in Miami to form arguably the league's most dynamic trio today.

Miami's big miss in 2009 produced 2010's great catch.

But the transaction that never took place for the Heat two summers ago turned out to be a win-win for both organizations. Odom flirted with the idea of returning to the Heat, where he played during the 2003-04 season. But on the verge of getting married, Odom instead chose to maintain his Los Angeles lifestyle with bride Khloe Kardashian. He also couldn't walk away from bonds with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson that produced champagne toasts after championships each of the previous two seasons.

With James, Bosh and Wade all locked into contracts with Miami for at least four seasons, the Heat's present and future are both promising as they try to deliver on vows to win multiple championships. But Riley was in a tough spot not too long ago.

The Heat's architect had been working since 2007 to position the team with enough salary cap space to cultivate the Summer of 2010 coup. But just prior to the summer that was, there were a couple of factors that made for some uncomfortable moments during the summer that wasn't.

Wade was two full seasons removed from leading the Heat to a championship in 2006, and was growing impatient with first-round playoff ousters and a roster youth movement that wasn't really going anywhere with Michael Beasley as the team's second-best player.

Wade, the league's scoring champion in 2008-09, was coming off the most statistically productive season of his career. He saw Cleveland, Orlando, Los Angeles and Denver making bold moves. He bought into the hope that Riley was selling for a 2010 roster revival. But Wade also wanted help in 2009, and didn't like the idea of toiling through another fruitless season.

What followed was the first -- and only -- public sparring session between Wade and Riley over the direction of the franchise. It was a fragile moment. Riley wanted Wade to sign a long-term contract extension and show potential free agents that he was committed to staying with the Heat. Wade wanted Riley to make a bold move to shore up the roster before he would think about offering his signature.

They met halfway. Armed with only the midlevel exception worth about $34 million over five seasons, Riley seriously pursued only three free agents that summer: Odom, Artest and Hedo Turkoglu.

Artest was off the market in a matter of hours into free agency, giving the Lakers a deep discount for his services. Turkoglu was priced out of the Heat's range, and took a $54 million deal with Toronto. Odom was there for the taking. Or at least that's the way it seemed amid tenuous contract negotiations with the Lakers. Wade jumped in on the recruiting, and there were reports he and Riley flew to Los Angeles to personally lobby Odom -- with the Heat's plane in place to immediately return to Miami.

But what could have been never came to be. And it was a blessing in disguise for the Heat. Patience proved to be a virtue for the Heat. Rejection was a gift.

Miami could have had Odom or Artest as Wade's sidekick.

Instead, they've got James and Bosh. Sometimes, the best moves you make are the ones you don't.

Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's game, it's a trade-off the Heat can live with for the long term.

Considering the rings he's since shared with Khloe and Kobe, Odom doesn't have any regrets, either.

Is the era of 'Kobe or LeBron' over?

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
2:15
AM ET
Krolik By John Krolik
ESPN.com
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James and Bryant
Getty Images
A year ago, the 'LeBron versus Kobe' debate raged. Have we moved on?

Ever since LeBron James' second season in the league and Kobe Bryant's first season playing without Shaq, the two players have drawn comparisons to one another. As both players matured, "Kobe or LeBron?" became the sport's most popular barroom debate, even though their radically different supporting casts and intraconference competition made it hard to really know which player was playing better basketball. When the Cavaliers became a 60-plus-win team and a Kobe-LeBron Finals seemed inevitable, the debate became impossible to escape.

In many ways, Kobe and LeBron helped define each other. Kobe was able to develop his game at his own pace while playing for one of the most successful franchises in NBA history, while LeBron was the Cavaliers' best player from the moment he played his first game for them. LeBron goes to the basket with the speed and strength of a charging bull, while Kobe uses the footwork of an experienced matador to get his shots off. LeBron has always been an able and willing passer, and his devotion to finding the open man 18 feet away from the basket instead of simply damning the torpedoes and going to the rim has actually hurt the Heat's offense at times.

Kobe believes, with good reason, that he can score from any spot on the floor, at any time, against any coverage. At times, he has hurt the Lakers offense by stopping the ball. LeBron outweighs Kobe by well over 50 pounds, but he's extremely uncomfortable with his back to the basket; Kobe has the most intricate package of post moves in basketball. Kobe can't dominate every facet of a game on a regular basis the way that LeBron did during the last two regular seasons, but LeBron hasn't shown that he has Kobe's knack for making the big play at exactly the right moment, especially in the playoffs. LeBron has the MVP awards; Kobe has the rings.

For the last two seasons, the Kobe/LeBron debate had a special significance because the two players were doing their best work on the two best teams in the league. Kobe's Lakers team was built around him. LeBron's team was built for him, to the point where this season's Cavs have the worst point differential in the NBA after losing LeBron.

After the Gasol trade, the Lakers became an incredibly talented team whose supporting cast developed a symbiotic relationship with Kobe's abilities. Kobe curbed his ball-stopping tendencies while remaining a deadly scorer capable of taking the game over at any time. LeBron's teammates were role players who were very good at making open shots, moving without the ball and playing team defense. But the supporting cast was completely dependent on LeBron's ability to create shots for them and cover ground on defense.

For a little while, the Kobe and LeBron debate wasn't just about Kobe and LeBron -- it was about two NBA superpowers crafted in the image of their stars. For two seasons, the NBA's most fun debate was also its most relevant one.

That time has passed.

This is not a call to respect LeBron's and Kobe's fundamental differences and come to terms with the fact that, while they are both great players, it's possible one may not be objectively better than the other. Those calls have been made, and ignored, because arguing about players is fun. However, while there is little doubt that Kobe and LeBron will be compared until the end of time, the fate of two championship contenders is no longer tied to their individual play the way it once was.

To put things simply, the "Who is the NBA's best player?" debate no longer carries the weight it did when the Cavaliers and Lakers were rolling through their respective conferences. The Lakers have relied on Kobe less and less each season since they acquired Gasol in February 2008. Gasol was arguably playing at a higher level than Bryant for the first month of the season, and the Lakers are 21-8 despite the fact that Kobe has scored 35 or more points only once this season (and the Lakers lost that game). Considering that Bryant once averaged 35.4 points per game, that's a pretty radical shift.

LeBron, of course, decided to leave the team built for the sole purpose of maximizing his production. For seven years, the Cavaliers' success was directly correlated to how well LeBron played, but that's not the case in Miami. The Heat don't need LeBron to be firing on all cylinders to win. In fact, they were leading the Mavericks after LeBron went scoreless for an entire half. There will be times when it will be in the Heat's best interest for LeBron to step out of the way and let Wade take over, or let Bosh operate out of the high post and attack the rim.

Ever since the days of Bill Russell, the best teams in the league have understood that getting the most out of your best player isn't the same thing as getting the most out of your team, and that's just as true today as it was then. Fans might think less of Rajon Rondo because he doesn't have a jumper, but the Celtics don't mind that Rondo would rather drive to the basket or set up an open teammate than trying to prove he can make a jumper. The Spurs don't care whether Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker is running the offense, and they certainly don't mind that they're having their best season in years without feeding Tim Duncan in the post much. The Thunder don't mind that Russell Westbrook's emergence as a superstar has hurt Kevin Durant's chances at grabbing the unofficial "best player in the NBA" title from Kobe or LeBron.

LeBron and Kobe haven't been supplanted by a new wave of superstars. Rather, the debate about which one of them is better has been made less relevant by a new crop of super-teams. The Heat are about vicious defensive pressure, fast-break points, deadly 3-point shooting, and dribble-drives in the half court -- not how many midrange jumpers LeBron can make or whether or not he can learn a quick spin move from the midpost. The Lakers are about running the triangle to perfection, beating teams with beautiful interior play, and using Kobe to put teams away -- not trying to give Kobe a chance to score 60 on any given night. The Spurs have the best offense in the league precisely because they rely on ball movement and looking for the best available shot at all times instead of just trusting their best player to make something happen. The Celtics are 23-4 for the same reasons.

LeBron has won two MVP awards. He's had some of the best statistical seasons since Jordan. He's won a crucial playoff game by scoring its final 25 points. He's taken a ragtag squad to the NBA Finals. He's won a conference finals game with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. He's done just about everything there is to do -- except, of course, win a championship. To get that elusive ring, he left the team tailor-made to suit his skills and joined a team like Kobe's -- one that doesn't need its superstar to take over every game in order to win, and one that's going to need him to make some sacrifices in order to perform at maximum efficiency.

LeBron, Kobe, their teammates and coaches, and the other teams that want the 2011 NBA championship trophy all recognize that there are more important things going on in the league than LeBron versus Kobe. We'll see if the fans in the barroom follow suit.

How similar are Bosh and Gasol?

December, 24, 2010
12/24/10
12:53
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Gasol and Bosh
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol: Similar profiles, different paths.

As the much-anticipated Christmas Day matchup approaches between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, the parallels between Chris Bosh and Pau Gasol will be obvious. Both are All-Star big men who, after struggling to bring home championships for their original franchises, changed scenery as they entered their primes, joining clubs brimming with talent. What’s more, they’ve each drawn considerable criticism -- no matter how unwarranted it may be -- for their supposed “soft” play.

Bosh and Gasol can sympathize with each other in many respects, but it’s also worth appreciating their distinct differences. Here are three:

Second fiddle vs. third option
Gasol was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Lakers before the trade deadline during the 2007-08 season. In Memphis, Gasol had established himself as one of the great young big men in the game. In that capacity, he took on the role as the Grizzlies’ No. 1 scoring option.


But the Spaniard played with other go-to options and he gradually saw fewer touches as the seasons went by. Beginning with his All-Star season in 2005-06, Gasol’s usage rate (the percent of team possessions a player is used on offense) had dwindled from 26.4 percent in 2005-06 to 25.3 percent in 2007-08 -- and falling further to 22.7 percent in 2007-08 before the organization famously shipped him to Los Angeles. Integrating into the Lakers' offense with Kobe Bryant would be an adjustment, but Gasol wasn’t exactly Chamberlain in his appetite for scoring.

Gasol’s scoring burden pales in comparison to what Bosh experienced in Toronto. The former Raptor’s usage rate in 2009-10 was a career-high 28.7, shouldering the ninth largest scoring responsibility in the NBA last season. By comparison, Gasol’s 22.7 percent in 2007-08 ranked him 71st.

Not only was Bosh used to getting an enormous number of shots in Toronto, but he has to integrate into an offense in Miami with not one, but two of the league’s most ball-dominant wings in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Gasol should be fortunate that he only has to deal with one Kobe Bryant on his team. While you could accurately call Gasol a second-fiddle to Bryant, the big man in Miami is more like a third wheel. As such, Bosh has seen his usage rate plummet from 28.7 percent in Toronto last season to 24.0 as member of the Heat. The only way you could equate the respective environments of Gasol and Bosh would be to put Carmelo Anthony in purple and gold.

Systemic changes
In addition to dissimilar pecking orders, Gasol and Bosh’s biggest systemic adjustments would come on opposite ends of the court. Gasol had the unenviable task of mastering Lakers head coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense on the fly. It takes years for some players to feel comfortable in the triangle offense, and some never actually do.


Bosh, on the other hand, must acclimate to Erik Spoelstra’s highly disciplined defensive system, a massive change from his Toronto days when the defense was more porous than a colander.

It took a little time for Gasol to learn the simple, yet multi-faceted triangle offense just like it will for Bosh to feel comfortable with the demanding defensive rotations in Spoelstra’s system. So while Gasol had to study X's and O’s to get up to snuff, Bosh is forced to develop instinct. Unfortunately for Bosh, there’s no crash course for intuition. Compounding the issue is that Bosh’s defensive sensibilities were essentially neutered playing with the worst defense in the NBA in Toronto.

In terms of skill set, Gasol is a perfect fit for the triangle offense, as he’s a gifted passer and equally effective from the elbow and the block. Bosh hopes his crafty finesse on the offensive side of the ball translates on the defensive end where exploiting angles is just as integral to success. The early results have been positive, as the Heat rank as a top team in defensive efficiency.

Same position, different matchups
It’s easy to overlook that when the Lakers are at their healthiest, the 7-foot Gasol plays the role of power forward. Lately, Gasol has slid into the 5 slot while Andrew Bynum recovers from knee issues, but figures to spend most of his time at the 4 once Bynum is reintegrated fully into the rotation. No doubt that Gasol is offensively skilled as any big man, but it certainly helps to have a few inches on the defender -- especially in getting the clearance necessary for a midrange jumper.

Bosh doesn’t have that liberty. If anything, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound power forward has been at a height disadvantage for long stretches this season, as Spoelstra asked him to play the 5 early in the season. Although it doesn’t fully explain the precipitous drop-off in rebounding, it’s clear that Bosh could use a couple inches underneath. In the end, Bosh doesn’t enjoy the mismatches that Gasol experiences alongside Bynum, one of the largest players in the NBA.

While their positional labels may both read “PF” in Saturday’s starting lineup, the two inches in height make a world of difference.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Dwyane Wade
PTS AST STL MIN
22.8 5.5 0.9 32.8
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsC. Bosh 8.2
AssistsD. Wade 5.5
StealsM. Chalmers 1.8
BlocksC. Bosh 0.8