The buzzer sounded to signal the end of the third quarter. Frustrated with his last miss, Lebron James shoved the closest player in front of him, innocent bystander, Troy Murphy. Seeing this, Pau Gasol stepped in and pushed Lebron James back, which was followed by Udonis Haslem pushing Gasol. In came Metta to administer some World Peace. Gasol walked away, glaring at James on his way to the bench. Gasol and James were hit with double technicals as a result. Frankly, that was a technical well-spent for the resident Spaniard and the Lakers.
The Lakers had been bullied by the Heat in every contest since Lebron James arrived in South Beach with those talents of his. The purple and gold were constantly outplayed, outhustled and outsmarted by the most hated team in the league, and it’s taken Kobe Bryant’s broken nose and concussion to finally incite his team to take a stand with him. Today the Lakers played physically, unafraid to body up and get in the face of every black jersey on the floor. They were cunning, playing to their strengths and adjusting to Miami’s changing play. And they were tough, losing a large lead, but coming back strong each time to not only compensate, but to hang on until the very end.
Laker Defense – Holding the Heat to 38 points on 39% shooting in the first half and then allowing just 83 points and 38% shooting for the game? If that’s not good defense, who knows what is. If the Lakers can hang their hats on anything in this wacky season, it’s their work on the defensive end of the floor. At 103.7 ppg on 49% from the field, Miami is the second highest scoring team in the league, and the Lakers held them to 20 points and 11% below their season average. The Heat also average 26 free throws a game, and tonight they were held to just 15 attempts from the charity stripe. The stats (and the first half of the third quarter) aside, the Lakers just looked more focused and more active on defense than we’ve seen them all season. They also manned the glass, outrebounding Miami 44-35.
Survivors – As expected, the Heat made some runs, quickly erasing a 16-point Laker lead from the end of the first half and going into the second, and got within two points, 62-64, with two minutes left in the third quarter, but, again, their defense prevailed, as did their offense. Kobe Bryant hit a fadeaway, Steve Blake hit a huge three, and Metta World Peace converted an alley oop pass from Blake. A 7-0 run closed the third. Miami got as close as six points in the final 12 minutes but never got over the hump, thanks largely to the Lakers maintaining their ground until the final buzzer.
Masked Mamba vs. Flash – Mamba wins! – With 18 points on 8-10 in the first quarter alone, Bryant set the tone early and the team followed suit. Wade gave Bryant his best defensive moves but even he knew, all too well, how this game would go if he remained Bryant’s defender. Shane Battier, a renowned Kobe-stopper did a better job, holding Bryant to just 6-13 the rest of the game. Mr. 4th Quarter, however, still managed to go 4-7 for nine points in the final 12 minutes. It was fadeaway after fadeaway with Battier’s hand covering his masked face, and it was nothing but net each time. Bryant finished with 33 points on 14-23.
While Bryant had a successful fourth quarter, Wade did not. Clearly frustrated (or perhaps distracted?), Wade’s final five minutes before fouling out produced just four points to match his four fouls. Two came at the offensive end, first sticking out his leg while going up for a shot and then charging into Blake. He followed that with an unintentional, but obvious, bump on Bryant and then foul on Andrew Bynum. He finished with 16 points on 7-17.
Frontline Battle – Haslem/Anthony vs. Gasol/Bynum – Advantage? Gasol/Bynum and it’s not even close. Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony combined for just seven points on 2-11, six rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block. I have to say it again – COMBINED. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, on the other hand, produced 27 points on 10-21, 7-8 from the free throw line, 23 rebounds, six assists, one steal and five blocks. Especially without the services of Chris Bosh, the Heat are no match for the Lakers’ front court. Actually, a lot of teams are have no one to counter Gasol and Bynum who are too big and too skilled.
Metta World Peace – Reminiscent of his excellent play in Game 7 of the Lakers-Celtics series in 2010, this game would not have turned out as it did, had it not been for the play of Metta World Peace. 17 points on 6-10, 2-3 from downtown, seven rebounds, three assists, four steals, a block and just one turnover – it’s probably his best game of the season on both ends of the court, also taking on the challenge of slowing down the mostly unstoppable Lebron James, who had 25 points but needed 26 shots to get it. When MWP is hitting from behind the arc and rising up to score on an alley oop, it’s undeniably a good day for World Peace and the Lakers. It may have taken some time, but MWP is rounding his game, not to mention himself, into great shape at the perfect time. Coach Mike Brown attributes Metta’s improvement to some weight loss, saying that, like the team as a whole, he just needed some time to get conditioned.
Steve Blake – His stat line isn’t one to break the bubbly for, but Blake has been a huge factor of the Lakers’ success of late. Especially today, with Derek Fisher in foul trouble, Blake was as steady as point guards should be, playing almost 29 minutes, handing out six assists and committing just two turnovers.
Third Quarter Lull – After going into halftime leading by 12 points, the Lakers strolled into the second half as unfocused as they were focused in the first 24 minutes. In one sequence, instead of running back on defense, Bryant stopped to complain to an official about a foul that wasn’t called, which resulted in the Heat scoring to bring their deficit to just four points. That was followed by a scrambling of sorts on offense that led to a 24-second violation and a Heat basket on the other end, bringing the lead to just two points. Thankfully, a three from Metta World Peace stopped the run and the Lakers spent the rest of the game more focused.
Turnovers – 18 turnovers from the Lakers resulted in 17 fast break points for the Heat. If there’s anything the Lakers absolutely need to bring closer attention to in this second half of the season, it’s limiting their turnovers to at least 10-12. They’re giving away too much and are fortunate that Miami didn’t score more than those 17 points.
It was a win the Lakers needed to get under their belt; a victory against a good team. For all the talk surrounding their lack of personnel, their lack of cohesion and their lack of toughness this season, the Lakers have shown a lot of improvement and fight since the All-Star break. On this Noche Latina, Los Lakers could be described en una palabra (in one word) – fuerte. Strong. Handing Miami their ninth loss on behalf of their defense, and then giving themselves a 17-2 record at home thanks in part to their offense, they look nothing like the team who lost their first two games when the season began. With the next three games away from the comforts of Staples Center, here’s hoping this strength and improvement travels.