A great example comes from a friend of mine who was very anti-Miami Thrice from the outset. He thought the superteam may ultimately end up being a good thing for the league if other superstars join together to (literally) share the wealth. However, he maintained that Kobe and the Lakers were the team to beat and he objected to the way Lebron left the Cavs. The other day he leaned over towards me and whispered “I kind of hope they do it now, I want to see them succeed.”
I think this is indicative of the the way alot of NBA fans are beginning to come around. At the outset of the season when the Heat struggled to adapt to their new plethora of talent, most pointed to the fact that the team had come together under auspicious circumstances and in all scenarios was not capable of living up to the incredible amounts of pre-season hype.
That has all changed.
Forget the 13 game winning streak and the absolute domination of a soft schedule of opponents. Forget that Lebron and Wade are still getting comfortable with one another and have yet to truly discover where each fits in on this team; just revel in the fact that they knocked the Lakers clear out of the arena.
Watching the game it seemed that the Lakers were not even close to the same team that battled through seven games with Boston last year. It seems they have reached a strange crossroads much earlier than anticipated – against the Heat they just looked…old.
Readers of this blog will know I am not Kobe Bryant’s biggest fan but I can respect the fact that he is one of the 12 best basketball players who has ever lived. He has won games for his team in the past and he has led the Lakers to 2 of his 5 titles (6 for 24 in Game 7?!). He once scored 81. Kobe has a killer instinct that has lacked in most of the new generation of players. This season he has played smartly, accepting his declining skills as Jordan did – by becomming a better shooter. However…
The Heat ran him off the court.
Not only did they run Kobe off “the” court – they ran him off his own court on Christmas Day with a huge amount of people watching. It was not even really close. The Lakers looked frustrated / overwhelmed at times and completely terrified / dominated at others. The Heat’s defense was smothering and held Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant to subpar shooting performances. What else did the Heat reveal with their signature victory?
1) They match up a lot better with the Lakers than people thought – When the Heat came together in the summer, lineups for a potential Heat / Lakers Finals showdown were batted about. Any way you sliced it, the Lakers had the advantage. They were bigger, tougher and had more skill players on the bench. Fast-forward to Christmas Day: the Lakers bench contributed next to nothing and Pau Gasol looked exhausted from feasting on the fresh-baked-donut-soft-schedule of the first three months for the Lakers. When the Lakers brought in (complete bust – is he at that point in the conversation yet?) Andrew Bynum he looked completely overmatched by Erik Dampier. The Heat played the Lakers at the right time as Ron Artest / Derek Fisher / Matt Barnes are all playing horribly but the mismatch matchup definitely went in the Heat’s favour. No one on the Lakers was able to step up and contain Lebron James in the slightest and both Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade pretty much had their way inside. As much as the rest of the league tries to shrug it off, the Heat are a matchup nightmare – even more so with Wade and Lebron sharing the ball.
2) The continued excellance of Chris Bosh
Against the Lakers Bosh threw down 24 points and snagged 13 rebounds – a far cry from the beginning of the season when he was pushed around by the most unlikely of big men. He has played aggressively, and has played hard every second he is on the court, and the reward has been a startlingly high shooting percentage. Bosh has played well in each game of their 14 of 15 swing. Against the Lakers, in arguably the biggest game the Heat have had all season, he came up huge by hitting 8 of 10 shots. So much for the terrified Bosh of the Boston series.
3) Dwayne Wade: Jack of all Trades – At halftime I had written down the name Dwayne Wade in my notes; beside it I had written: 8pts, 4 rebs, 4 assts, crazy defense. All season long people have waited for Lebron to become the triple double machine we all know he can be (See against the Lakers!) but at the moment Wade seems to be the Heat player willing to do it all. Wade struggled at the outset of the year along with the rest of the Heat players because no one fit comfortably into any one role. With the similiarities in play between Wade and Lebron it was natural that one of them would have to take a step back. Wade has accepted the role and flourished with aplomb. He has played well in nearly every facet of the game and flies around the court with the singular purpose of making his team better. No one on the Heat plays harder than Wade. When they raise a championship trophy it may be Lebron who earns the MVP award but he had better be willing to share the glory with Wade and Bosh who will both be equally deserving.
4) Lebron is comfortable – Lebron has finally realized that he needs to score to win games and he has started dominating like he did with the Cavs. Against the Lakers Lebron rose easily to their challenge – they gave him the three and dared him to shoot. For most of his career this has been a tempting version of trick or treat (
most of the time trick…), but against the Lakers he (as I predicted) rose to the occasion. He hit five three pointers and most of the people I was watching the game with could not believe it. Every time he shot another three, I had a small feeling of anxiety but he just kept burying shots and as he did, his confidence rose exponentially. Lebron dominated his matchup with Kobe and so thoroughly got under his skin that Kobe fell back into the comfortable position of blaming his teammates when he has had a terrible game himself ( Kobe must need shoulder surgery by this point: he has thrown a lot of people under the bus). Lebron is beginning to enjoy himself on the court again and his acceptance of his role as a villain has gone a long way towards people coming around on the team.
Just a month and a half ago a friend of mine sent me an email around 9-8 time that said “I feel bad for Lebron at this point, he made a horrible choice and the Lakers are going to destroy them…if they make the playoffs”. At the time it seemed semi-appropriate with the team in chaos, but it now appears they were merely a team in transition. Even during their 13 game winning streak people complained that they lacked a signature win: beating the Lakers by 16 has more than taken care of that.
While it may not be time to gloat completely, the signs are positive. The Lakers were genuinely overmatched and seemed frightened: this was a team unlike any they had played. Everything they tried to do failed miserably, as the young Heat ran the old men around until finally Phil Jackson relented and pulled his starters off the court. They finished the game – especially Kobe – stewing on the Lakers bench next to Larry David. It seems to be a trend, Kobe ending Christmas Day games on the bench, hurt and dejected after having been destroyed by Lebron James.
The Heat are a scary team and no one seemed to expect they would be this good, this quickly. The fact that they have barely scratched the surface of their talent may mean that the short reign of Kobe Bryant is over. One thing is clear: if Lebron remains the best player in the league on a team with the number 3 player, in my opinion he gets more props, not less.
Kobe wanted, trained and prepared for this game and in the end he was spitting mad on the bench. Perhaps this was Phil Jackson’s greatest coup – having Kobe remember the feeling of anger and bitterness, but in the end his team was overmatched, outworked and plain outplayed in every facet of the game.