LOS ANGELES -- The only way to summarize the respective states of the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers right now is in "Riley-esque" terms, so let me hurry up and get these in before Pat Riley tries to trademark them:
The Heat are enjoying the luxury of less; the Lakers are burdened by the necessity of more.
Good teams function from sacrifice, a quality Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called "the underrated storyline about our group."
"You take a lot of Type A, ultra-competitive personalities, they make it look a lot easier than it is to commit to a team," Spoelstra said.
Yes, Dwyane Wade has seen his shot attempts dip to their lowest level since his rookie year, and Chris Bosh has had to play out of position at center. There have been occasional creaks, but the Heat foundation has yet to crack while providing the support for LeBron James to play the best basketball of his life -- and some of the highest levels of hoops you'll see in yours. The end result is the Heat, who defeated the Lakers 99-90 on Thursday night, are the defending champions and possessors of the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Lakers? They've discovered that not even the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash are enough. They need more. So they're asking more of Kobe Bryant, for him to be the defensive spearhead in addition to the leading scorer. And Bryant, in turn, has made a rare request for help within the offensive system.
"If this is going to be something that I'm going to have to do for a while, then I'm going to need my teammates' help to free up offensively, like we did in the fourth quarter," Bryant said. "Create some picks for me, create some easy shots. It's going to be tough for me to guard the top guy and then come down and go one-on-one every play."
Bryant missed 13 of his first 16 shots through the first three quarters of the game. Then, in the fourth, he caught open looks on a pair of 3-pointers and knocked them down. Next he made a jumper off a screen, then drilled a contested 3-pointer that tied the score at 90 and energized the Staples Center crowd.
Then LeBron locked in on Bryant, the Heat defenders jumped him every time he came off a screen and Kobe wasn't heard from again, while the Heat scored the last nine points in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
The Lakers tried going traditional, with the standard lineup of Bryant and Nash in the backcourt, with Howard, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace in the frontcourt. They tried running a traditional offense, featuring the basic stuff Mike D'Antoni professes to hate -- passes to the center posting up on the block -- and it didn't get them anything.
Howard couldn't make his free throws (he couldn't even hit the rim on one of them), World Peace couldn't hit a shot when the ball came his way, Nash couldn't get around the quick Heat defenders and wound up clanking a scoop shot off the side of the backboard. And Bryant couldn't get open.
You could say that one way to ease the load on Bryant would be to incorporate his teammates more. But you also could say the last three minutes of this game were like an audition for anyone else to take over the offense, and no one did well enough to get the part.
"Maybe we should have looked for Kobe a bit more in hindsight," Nash said. "But I think we're still a team trying to figure it out. We had an advantage in size; we thought we could make hay there."
Gasol didn't get shots, but at least he got some run in the fourth quarter, which was more than usual. Any playing time at all felt good after he had missed the previous five games with a concussion. He came off the bench this time and wound up playing only 5 1/2 minutes with L.A.'s three other stars.
He talked about the need to get more comfortable when he's sharing the court with Howard.
That's another bit of "more" the Lakers say they need: more time.
"For us in some ways, it was like a new experience for us all together," Nash said. "For them it was an old experience. That's what it looked like for me down the stretch."
Except the Lakers need to be winning games right now. For all the good feelings they had generated with two easy home victories against Cleveland and Milwaukee, one game against a tougher opponent dropped them back to five games below .500.
They weren't able to get the ball to Howard at the rim as successfully Thursday night as they did against Milwaukee, when all but two of his 14 field goals came within 2 feet of the bucket. They had trouble getting the ball anywhere in the first half, when they served up 16 turnovers that led to a Heat dunk-a-thon.
Nash's comments indicated the Lakers have no base, no set play they can go to when they need a bucket, no cohesive feel that can make the offense flow easier.
And they don't know how long they can go with Bryant defending playmakers, one of the few things that has worked well recently. He guarded Wade on Thursday but couldn't keep up with him in transition and thus couldn't prevent him from scoring 27 points. Bryant has said he feels more physically taxed than mentally worn.
It doesn't sound like relief is imminent.
"Can we give him a day off from it?" D'Antoni wondered before the game. "Maybe. Can we give him a little bit less time? Yeah. But anybody does something that well, we kinda have to do it for a while. It's something that we'll look and talk and see how he feels."
"I'm doing all right," Bryant said. "I'll need some help offensively to save energy and not have to isolate and do some things like that. I'm going to need some picks, I'm going to need to catch and shoot like we did in the fourth quarter a little bit to make my job a little easier. The first three quarters, me just standing around the perimeter, [defenses] are praying for that.
"We've got to do some things to free me up and get me in open spaces and knock down some shots; this way I can be more active on the defensive end of the floor."
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