HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Not that we didn’t know it already, but the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers showed us on Thursday that there’s still a pretty large gap between the two teams that many thought would be meeting in The Finals come June. The result was a 99-90 victory for Miami that kept them in first place in the Eastern Conference and kept the Lakers buried in 11th place in the West.
The Heat were playing the sixth and final game of a tough road trip, and on the second night of a back-to-back. They shot just 6-for-34 from outside the paint. But they stepped it up defensively and attacked the basket for 68 points in the paint and another 17 at the free throw line.
The Lakers, meanwhile, couldn’t get the shots they wanted or the stops they needed. They committed 20 turnovers, including 14 of the live-ball variety. And they couldn’t do anything with the size advantage they had on the frontline.
Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register writes that the Lakers just aren’t ready to win big games…
There are teams that just know how to win and teams that just don’t.
Welcome to the other side, Lakers.
After so many years with their grass so much greener – Bryant driving them to be daring, clutch and sharp at critical moments – the Lakers more than ever in recent history just don’t know how to win.
They don’t know how to execute down the stretch in part because of unfamiliarity with each other but also just because they don’t know what exactly what they want to be doing.
They still don’t have any dependable defensive structure even in their most basic sense, not being sure anyone will make even the first rotation after Howard goes to protect the paint. They don’t want to dump the ball predictably on Bryant, and at the key moments Thursday night Howard air-balls one free throw, misses the next and Nash then awkwardly shoots the ball off the side of the backboard.
And not that we didn’t know it already, but LeBron James is still by far the best player in the world. The reigning MVP put up a ridiculous line of 39 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and three steals on a night when he didn’t really have his jumper.
Brian Windhorst of ESPN chronicles what was a statement game from James…
With all the Player of the Week and Player of the Month Awards that have become routine and so much judgment saved for the playoffs, it can be easy to lose sight of the everyday masterpieces James delivers. He’s had three of them just since Monday night, which rescued the Heat from what had the makings of a dismal road trip.
James’ fourth quarter Monday in Utah was a showcase of his versatility, playing point guard on offense and center on defense to take over both ends of the court to lead a dramatic comeback that fell just short. Unless you saw it, fighting bigger players in the post and whipping passes through invisible alleys, you probably couldn’t appreciate it.
Wednesday at Golden State was a night of history, in which he nailed two meaningful milestones over a span of about 20 minutes and came up just short of a triple-double, even with sitting out the fourth quarter. He needed 18 points to get to 20,000, but the Heat, who had lost three of four, needed a win. So he had the best-scoring first half of the season, putting up 21, and ended the discussion and the losing streak by the half.
Against the Lakers, he had his best overall offensive game of the season and one of the most efficient of his career. In a statement on just where Dwight Howard’s health is at this point, James relentlessly attacked the Lakers’ interior and teamed up with Wade to put on a highlight show with fast breaks after forcing turnovers. He made seven layups and six dunks, overall shooting 15-of-16 in the paint as he scored a season-high 39 points.
The Heat are finally heading home and have five days of rest before they host the Raptors on Wednesday. The Lakers, meanwhile, begin a critical, three-game trip in Toronto on Sunday. With every loss, the playoffs become less of a reality. They really need a strong run to get there, and they don’t look like they’re quite ready for that right now.