Dwyane Wade got the best of Kobe Bryant down the stretch on Thursday.
MIAMI -- In retrospect, LeBron James wished he’d missed the last insurance free throw in the Miami Heat’s biggest win of the season.
“It means we still can’t win games by five points or less,” James said. “We still can’t crack that.”
It’s true, the Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers by six points, 94-88, on Thursday night. That nagging record in those five-point games still stands at 5-13. James’ joke wasn’t just a jab at the scrutiny the Heat have been under recently, it was mostly an expression of relief.
That was the overwhelming reaction after they outdueled the Lakers at a clear flash point in the Heat’s season. Getting any win over any team would have eased the burden Miami has been carrying for the past two weeks. Beating the two-time defending champs while they were red-hot and doing it by outplaying them in the stretch run, though, was like hitting a momentum jackpot.
It won’t erase all the problems or the hole the team has dug itself in the standings, but it was a legitimate start.
While the Heat attempted to shake off outside opinions of their closing skills after a spate of recent tight losses, there was no questioning that the team’s confidence in late-game situations looked shaky at best. That was turned around completely in a game in which the desire both teams had to win was palpable.
This time it was Dwyane Wade who was called upon to do the heavy lifting on the offensive end, not so much taking the closing duties from James but working in concert with him. In other words, exactly the style the Heat have been trying to work out for the better part of four months.
One game does not make a season, but it appeared the Heat now have a blueprint to work off. Wade had the ball in his hands in the closing minutes, battling Kobe Bryant at both ends and scoring a valuable victory in the man-to-man battle -- and perhaps within his own team.
Wade made four driving layups in the final five minutes, rescuing what had been a subpar effort as he was exerting energy chasing Bryant. Wade was just 5 of 16 shots heading into the fourth quarter but ended up taking his old role of being the difference-maker by getting the ball at the top of the key and waiting for screens and space to attack.
“I was just being very aggressive,” Wade said. “Coach gave me the ball in spots that I’m used to, where I could read the defense. My teammates did a great job screening for me, and I got to the basket a few times.”
Finishing at the rim is not easy against the Lakers, who feature a back line of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But Wade was able to find gaps amid the long arms to get the ball to the hoop. It was the kind of precision that had eluded he and the Heat in close losses, mostly when James was trying to get to the rim on his own.
This time there was more organization and James took the supporting role. In a crucial play with 46 seconds left, the Heat executed a maneuver that has long seemed missing from the late-game playbook. James set a screen for Wade, catching Bryant by surprise and sending him to the floor.
Instead of taking turns running isolations, both stars got involved in the same action. And it worked, giving the Heat a four-point lead.
“It was a huge point in the game, being up two and being able to execute down the stretch,” James said. “We drew up the play in the timeout and when you draw up a play in a timeout and then go out there and execute it, it makes you feel real good about it.”
The Lakers were not at their best. Bryant struggled shooting after the first quarter, tossing up some wild shots in the fourth quarter while seething he couldn’t get a few calls from the officials.
But the Heat also won the battle for rebounds, loose balls and fast-break points, tapping into areas where they'd been falling short. The Lakers also struggled to get clean shots against the Heat defense, shooting just 6-of-24 in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game belonged to Wade. He tracked down a loose ball, saved by Mike Bibby, and fired it to James for a dunk that gave the Heat the lead for good.
Miami wasn’t making those kinds of plays in these kinds of games. But led by Wade, that changed on Thursday.
“I felt like we hadn’t been doing enough of late,” Wade said. “We haven’t gotten defensive stops, we haven’t gotten loose balls and we haven’t gotten the rebounds. I feel we did all that. Just doing the little things.”
And the big things, too.