MIAMI -- The old maxim might state that defense wins championships, but there’s also a saying in basketball that on any individual play, great offense always beats great defense.
A defender can position himself perfectly to guard a shot with his body squared and his arms outstretched, but some guys can just score anyway. Think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, Tony Parker’s floater or, as was the case in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 109-102 loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday, LeBron James’ fadeaway jumper.
After L.A. cut a 10-point Miami lead to start the fourth down to four with 2:24 remaining, James unleashed a pull-up, 25-foot fadeaway from the right wing with Jodie Meeks all over him.
"I played pretty good defense, and he hit a tough shot," Meeks said. "That is why he is LeBron. Really nothing you can do. Just play hard and hope he misses sometimes."
Meeks' attitude should be commended, because that play from James sums up the overall challenge the Lakers defense faces on a nightly basis. The Lakers are undermanned and overmatched and now losers of 14 of their past 17 games, but their only chance of doing anything the rest of the way is to take on teams the way Meeks took on James that play: give every ounce of effort they have and hope for the best.
Pau Gasol had another solid game with 22 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals to continue his tremendous run in the month of January, but he let out a long sigh when asked if the Lakers can become the defensive team it needs to be.
"We don’t have great, let’s say, defensive individuals," said Gasol, knowing full well that L.A. lost two former defensive player of the year winners in Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace from its team last season. "So we got to cover for each other. We got to work together. We got to communicate. We really have to be better at communicating and getting each other going and letting each other know where we’re at and just energizing each other."
If there’s been any good to the slump the Lakers have been mired in, it has certainly allowed the team to get to know itself and its flaws better. There needs to be recognition before there’s repair.
L.A.'s weak spots have been allowing points in the paint, as well as second-chance points by not cleaning up the glass. They also turn the ball over too much on offense and see teams run roughshod all over them in fast-break conversion opportunities as a result.
The Lakers licked the turnover bugaboo on Thursday, coughing it up only 12 times leading to 12 Miami points (as opposed to forcing the Heat into 18 turnovers resulting in 19 points of their own). But the paint was still a problem (the Lakers were outscored 52-48), as were the boards (Miami, which also plays with a smaller lineup, outrebounded L.A. 48-35).
"We’ll find a way to score," Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. And he’s right, as L.A. has scored 100 or more points in seven of their losses during their recent downturn (not to mention 97 and 99 in two others).
"It’s not about numbers," he said. "It’s about defense and being tougher. Getting into people [opponents] and controlling the boards. Getting back. I don’t look at the numbers. I just do it individually. Our problem is defense."
There’s no easy solution. Defense isn’t easy. Just think of that Meeks-James play. But if the Lakers put forth that type of effort on the majority of the possessions, things will start to turn for them -- as the majority of the players they’ll be guarding won’t be former league MVPs, for one.
"You don’t have great individual defenders that can make up for mistakes or that can cover up their man on their own," Gasol said. "So we really need to scramble. We need to hustle. We need to communicate. We need to make sure we hold each other accountable. We’re there for each other. That’s how we’re going to give ourselves a chance defensively."
Gasol isn’t a great individual defender, either, at this point of his career, but he understands how to make the proper rotations to help out when a teammate gets beat. But if nobody makes the secondary rotation to help Gasol, well, that’s a different story.
"Sometimes, I get frustrated because I’m trying to cover all the penetration from different guards attacking us and then my guy is wide open and I get upset," Gasol said.
Part of L.A.'s defensive scheme is to try to bait teams into shooting long, contested two-point jumpers against their fronts. Chris Bosh took full advantage of that Thursday and shot 15-for-22 from the field. Again, great offense beats great defense.
"Bosh just played great," the Lakers' Nick Young said. "Some players have them type of nights when it seems like the whole basket is big. We had hands up; he was just making tough shots.
"I asked Bosh, I said, 'Did you miss tonight?' He said, 'Man, I’m done having one of them nights.' That’s one of them games every player wants."
What the Lakers want is something to start going their way, so when they start to get Xavier Henry, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar back in the lineup over the course of the next several weeks, there’s still something left to play for.
"We’re still fighting," Young said.
Fighting the good fight is all the Lakers can do right now. Hoping that Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson and Victor Oladipo’s shots aren’t falling Friday against the Magic in Orlando couldn’t hurt, either.