Updated: March 5, 2012, 2:09 PM ET

Lakers Standing Tall Again

Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- It didn't come down to Dwyane Wade versus Kobe Bryant's nose or LeBron James confronting his fourth-quarter demons or any other expected showdowns.

This Lakers victory over the Heat -- and the cause for newfound optimism among the Lakers -- was born of such unexpected things as Metta World Peace scoring 17 points, and Andrew Goudelock scoring more points than LeBron, Wade or any other Heat player in the second quarter, and Pau Gasol playing the role of tough guy, stepping up to get in LeBron's grill after LeBron tangled with Troy Murphy at the end of the third quarter.

Lakers/Heat
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesLeBron James played well, but a revived Metta World Peace (17 points) helped the Lakers rule the paint in a 93-83 win over the Heat.

What was up with that? Especially with Pau?

"I was just a little tired of the elbows and pushing around a little bit," Gasol said. "I saw that he elbowed a little bit, or shoved, Troy. At one point, you have to say, 'It's enough.'"

That's the explanation for why the Lakers are where they are right now, back in the upper echelon of the Western Conference, winners of five of their past six games, back to the mindset they're accustomed to having in Lakerland.

"The light finally went off that we believe we can win it," Derek Fisher said.

That the Lakers had to get to that state gives you GPS navigation-style reverse directions to where they were. They were disconnected and in dire need of an identity. Players were griping about their roles in new coach Mike Brown's offense. It took them getting as fed up collectively as Gasol felt individually Sunday afternoon.

It took them getting to the point to say, it's enough.

That's essentially what Fisher told the team two weeks ago when he addressed the Lakers in the locker room following a win against Portland.

Enough.

Stop worrying about what you are and aren't allowed to do in the offense. Stop fretting about who might or might not be here after the trade deadline. Do what you can with what you have.

"It's that simple," Fisher said Sunday on his way out of Staples Center. "As much talk that has gone towards what Mike is doing or not doing, I just thought it was important for us [as a] group to turn the mirror on ourselves. Regardless of what Coach is doing or not doing, agree, disagree, rotation, whatever it is, we have to block that out and make a decision that with this group of guys, what are we going to do? Are we going to maximize it and get the most out of it, or are we going to flounder around, win a game, lose a game and just flop around through the season?

"As a group, we all just made a decision to block out any outside distraction of any kind and buy in as a group."

Brown, in turn, ceded more control to the players, allowing them a freer run of the offense.

"I trust everybody on the floor to go play their game," Brown said. "And I think they feel it because I don't look as stressed on the sidelines as I did in the first few games of the year."

The Lakers have gone from a boring, middle-of-the-pack team to an interesting contender. The transformation has been fascinating. It was a matter of settling on an identity and playing to it. They discovered early on that Bryant could be back to Bryant, not the facsimile that limped through last season with a bad knee. He can still get 30 points at will, including the 33 he dropped on the Heat on Sunday in his first look at Wade since Wade broke his nose in the All-Star Game.

The question was who and what would fall in behind him. It turned out that Andrew Bynum upped his game to All-Star level. Goudelock has turned into an effective scorer off the bench. Gasol, through all the trade rumors, produces double-doubles regularly. World Peace is back in shape and has scored at least eight points in four consecutive games for the first time this season.

"We understand what we are," Bryant said. "We're a low-post team. We're not a screen-roll team. We don't do that. That's not what our strengths are.

"The real test for any championship team is to understand what your weaknesses are and cover those, and understand what your strengths are and play to those. I feel like we're starting to understand and support each other in that department."

The Heat -- especially without Chris Bosh -- played right into the Lakers' greatest asset: their big men tandem. The Lakers could go to Bynum inside on offense (he made six of 11 shots), and because Joel Anthony didn't pose a scoring threat, Bynum could roam on defense and disrupt the Heat all over the court. At one point, LeBron was looking at a double-team of Gasol and Bynum, a situation in which LeBron was more than justified for passing off.

Miami, meanwhile, isn't properly equipped to exploit the Lakers' point guards the way most other teams do. Yes, Mario Chalmers scored 15 points, but those were offset by Steve Blake's six assists. And the more you give the ball to Chalmers and Norris Cole, the less it's in the hands of LeBron and Wade.

The Lakers at their best can't beat the Heat at their best -- and this was nothing close to the best of Miami on Sunday. Bosh, who attended a family funeral Saturday, missed the game. Wade picked up his sixth foul with 5:14 remaining -- his first foul-out in 259 games -- after missing 10 of 17 shots.

There is one part of this victory that's applicable to the Western Conference foes the Lakers will face in the playoffs.

"With our system and our personnel, we need to control games, make sure we execute offensively, don't turn it over too much, allow the opponents to get out and get run-outs and easy points against us," Gasol said.

The Lakers did that Sunday. The 93-83 final score showed the game was played on their terms. It's what they will have to do against the Thunder or the Clippers if they even hope to see the Heat again this season. And they'll have to prove they can win on the road.

It's not accurate to say the Lakers looked like champions Sunday. It's just that they looked like the Lakers, now that they finally know what that means.


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