Kobe Bryant left with big burden

MIAMI -- In the locker room, black towel draped over his shoulders and chest, his knees, feet and ankles swallowed in ice, it was easy to decipher Kobe Bryant's mood.

Back out on the floor, long after the game had ended, firing shots from all over the floor, there was no doubt about Bryant's resolve. Nor about his disappointment.

His Los Angeles Lakers, riding an eight-game winning streak, having elevated their game and their prowess by riding the shoulders of big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol the past two weeks, picked a fine time to come up as miniature as they had appeared entering the All-Star break. When it counted, against a star-studded cast rendered helpless against size, length and heart all season, neither Lakers big man showed up, especially on defense.

Ultimately, it left Bryant all alone to try to fend off the Miami Heat. He couldn't do it, and the Lakers bowed 94-88 on Thursday night, the second time they've done so in as many meetings with the Heat this season, reminding everyone what life looks like for Bryant when he's virtually alone to shoulder the burden.

"We didn't get the job done," Bryant said, clearly perturbed, after the game. "Whatever you do, you just can't give up points in the paint. You just can't do it. We did, and you saw what happened. Damn!"

Damn! Is right. For a variety of reasons.

The Lakers yielded 46 points in the paint to the Heat, plus 21 second-chance points. During one sequence, Miami scored on four consecutive plays, all when Gasol failed to provide help.

Gasol, all 7 feet of him, made just three field goals the entire second half. Not a single other Laker registered more than two field goals over the last two quarters, including Bryant.

L.A. shot just 29.3 percent (12-of-41) in the game's last 24 minutes. Ron Artest (nine points), anemic shooting numbers and all, can't seem to figure out why teams are leaving him open all the time. Lamar Odom picks moments when he isn't much better, and then, of course, we all were robbed of the duel we expected between Bryant and LeBron James.

Considering they were talking smack to one another when they met in L.A. on Christmas Day, most avid fans were looking forward to a second encounter. But Dwyane Wade ruined it by checking Bryant for practically the entire game.

"I didn't need to [check Bryant]," James said afterward. "D-Wade was doing a pretty good job of it himself. He asked for the challenge. He wanted the challenge and made the night easier for me."

Then he looked at D-Wade and added, "Thanks!"

On this night, the only thing the Lakers had to be thankful for was the not-so-friendly reminder that their superiority -- aside from Bryant's periodic heroics -- is because of their size. Bynum is a mammoth few teams in the league have an answer for. And Gasol, arguably the best power forward in the game, holds similar stature. But when they pull a disappearing act like they did at pivotal times Thursday, "guys become a bit hesitant to come to us," Bynum said. "Then everything goes a little haywire."

That wasn't the case at the beginning of the game, when Bryant, wearing a look of vengeance stemming from L.A.'s Christmas defeat, scored the Lakers' first 10 points. Nor was it the case at the half with the Lakers trailing 55-53.

But as the game wound down, as Chris Bosh used the pick-and-roll to get to the basket for a change instead of settling for jump shots, things began to turn unfavorably for the Lakers. And by the time it was over, all Bryant appeared in the mood to do was curse over a no-call on what he said was a foul on the forearm while attempting a 24-foot shot over Wade.

"I didn't [foul Bryant]," Wade said, before laughing.

It was good Miami had reasons to laugh. Not so good that it was at the Lakers' expense.

Shove the dust from their performance out of the way, and reality reveals itself: No matter how talented the Lakers appear to be, their size and Bryant's excellence get them over. Without using the length they have on their front line, they are an older team, devoid of the athleticism Miami is blessed with.

On Thursday night, it was James, Wade and Bosh -- the future -- versus Bryant, desperately holding on to now, refusing to concede that the days of dominance might be coming to an end. Just like others who play with him.

"We're an even-keel team," Odom said after the game. "We're never too high, never too low. That's what works for us. So when you know what you've gotta do, when you're able to focus on yourself, your job, you don't worry about anybody else. They don't faze you.

"It's all about us. What we do. So we're not about to change."

Judging by their loss to the Heat, about the only thing they need to change is finding a way to ensure their big fellas will show up more consistently.

There's no doubt Bryant believes he can handle it if they don't. But what of those knees and feet wrapped in ice? How faithful and loyal will they be, as Father Time comes knocking, when facing greyhounds like the Miami Heat down the line?

Or perhaps someone better!

Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.