Watching Miami’s blowout 96-80 win over the Lakers on Christmas Day, only one thing in particular struck me about the much-hyped, sensationalized game between one NBA heavyweight and another supposed contender.
That thing was this: How blatantly obvious it was that the Lakers did not care.
This was supposed to be a game that declared the Lakers’ supremacy as the league’s best. It was supposed to be another opponent that the Heat fell to; one that showed that Miami still has quite a way to go, no matter how sexy its winning streaks.
Instead, this was a Los Angeles team that showed little effort or heart, aside from the first play of the game on a beautifully designed alley-oop set from Kobe to Lamar Odom.
Instead, it was all Miami, all the time. The Heat held the Lakers 25 points below their season average. LeBron James earned his third triple-double of the season. Chris Bosh destroyed Pau Gasol in the paint, opening a lot of eyes for those who suggested the Lakers’ frontcourt would deem Miami’s laughable.
The bottom line came to this: Miami, simply, cared. Los Angeles did not. This was a game that was so much more important to the Heat that I’m not exactly sure what to take away from it. Yes, I was impressed by Miami’s relentless defense and a much improved passing game thanks to an offense that is moving freer and more often.
But this was a game the Heat needed to win if it wanted to be amongst the true legit title contenders. The problem was, the Lakers so willingly let them have it. Phil Jackson might as well have been absent, refusing to pound the Heat inside or go zone to negate the driving and passing lanes and force jumpers. Kobe forced some things, showed some anger but otherwise seemed disinterested. And when Kobe and Phil are disinterested, it’s very easy for the rest of the Lakers to follow suit.
As two-time defending champs, the Lakers – rightfully so – don’t have anything to prove until the playoffs. These games mean little to them, no matter how much ESPN and the media wish to hype them up. Kobe and Co. are clearly saving their energy for the more important games in late April, May and June. After all, a third consecutive title won’t be won in December, no matter how titanic the matchup.
“These games mean more to our opponents than they do us,” Kobe acknowledged following the game, stressing a need to fix that. “We always suck on Christmas … they should just take us off this day.”
As far as Miami, it was a solid road victory. Impressive? At the very least. Their defense was excellent. We knew that. The offense looks a whole lot healthier. That’s a positive sign.
But no matter how many wins they compile in the regular season, their true essence lies in this: They are weakest at the league’s two most vital positions, center and point guard. And until that is resolved, this is a team bound for the Eastern Conference semifinals, maybe the East finals if the cards fall right. Individual games can be easily won courtesy of individual greatness. But in a seven game series against the likes of a Chicago, Boston or Orlando, that lack of size and a true playmaker – not to mention substantial depth – will become their downfall unless it is addressed before March.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are not a cast of emotionally empty talents, which is why it’s simple to cast Saturday’s episode as an aberration. They will be heard from when it counts, and it’s because of what they DO have – superior size, depth and playmaking – that I’m not sure their ugly holiday loss should mean much in the big picture.