The Los Angeles Lakers needed to make a statement in their game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center on Thursday night, and they did. The statement was basically: “We are not good enough to beat the good teams.”
At least not right now they aren’t – not with an offense that’s still searching for an identity, and a defense that is continually under siege from younger, more athletic teams.
Ironically, it wasn’t the defense at fault in the Heat’s 99-90 victory, it was a stagnant offense that went scoreless over the final two minutes, as the Heat went on a 9-0 run to close the game.
"I thought we played well enough to beat them," Mike D'Antoni said. "That's a championship team. They turned on all the juices, so it's a good measuring stick. That's what they do, and we have to get better.”
This was supposed to be a preview of the NBA Finals, according to the prognostications of four months ago. But while the Heat (26-12) look poised for another title run, the Lakers (17-22) look poised to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Things have gotten so dire that D’Antoni declared a season re-boot before last Sunday’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers – not a bad move, considering the Lakers had been 10-16 under D’Antoni’s tenure, including a six-game losing streak that dropped them to 11th place in the Western Conference standings.
But after two easy wins over the Cavs and Milwaukee Bucks, false hopes of a revival began to stir. Earlier in the week, Kobe Bryant looked forward to the Heat’s arrival as a yardstick for which the Lakers could judge themselves. All it proved, however, was how wide the gap is these days between the Lakers and the elite teams they once were thought to be.
The stats - and the action on the court - did not lie. The Lakers played well enough to win, but couldn’t execute in the most critical moments of a game they badly needed. On a night when hardly any other Heat player showed up offensively, the Lakers had no answers for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, who torched them for a combined 66 points on 28-45 shooting in a brilliant display of dunks, fadeaways, alley oops, and unstoppable drives.
"LeBron is going to get his points, but if we control Dwayne and Chris Bosh, we have a better chance of winning," Dwight Howard said later. "Tonight, D-Wade, he had it going on the offensive end. He was the difference.”
Sloppy Lakers play and opportunistic team defense by Miami - something utterly foreign to D’Antoni’s charges - also contributed mightily. The Lakers’ 20 turnovers (16 in the first half) enabled the Heat to outscore them 25-0 in transition. Astonishingly, for a team whose vertical reach was supposed to give them an advantage over the smaller Heat, the Lakers were blitzed 68-28 on points in the paint. How dominant were the Heat inside? James was 13-13 on shot attempts within five feet of the basket, while Wade was 7-8.
The Lakers welcomed Pau Gasol back into the lineup after a concussion, but Gasol came off the bench to spell Earl Clark - a development he intimated he would not be thrilled with on a regular basis.
Gasol and Dwight Howard played reasonably well together, and the Heat countered by fronting Howard down low and daring him to beat them from the free-throw line. Howard was not up to the challenge, shooting 5-13, including two critical misses (one of them an airball) in the final two minutes.
And while the new strategy of putting Bryant on the opposition’s best player worked well against the likes of Kyrie Irving and Brandon Jennings, the effort of trying to stop Wade may have hurt Bryant on the offensive end, where he shot 3-16 through the first three quarters before coming alive in the fourth.
"I need some help offensively to save energy and not have to isolate and do things like that," Bryant said. "I'm going to need some picks. I'm going to need to catch-and-shoot like I did in the fourth quarter a little bit to make my job a little easier. I think the first three quarters of me just standing around the perimeter, the defense is praying for that. We have to do some things to free me up and get me in open spaces, this way I can be more active on the defensive end of the floor."
Freeing Bryant up from offensively was supposed to be one of the benefits of signing Steve Nash, but since his return from a knee injury, Nash has looked like an afterthought, just another expensive puzzle piece that has yet to jell in a system that has yet to click.
Already, the Lakers are threatening to be the biggest $100 million flop in sports history. While fans could take consolation from the Lakers’ fourth quarter surge - an eight-minute stretch where they outscored the Heat 21-10 to take a three-point lead - that gave a glimpse into the kind of championship-caliber team they were supposed to be, it was just that, a glimpse, in a season long on glimmers of hope, and short on actual results.