The Lakers gave Heat hope

MIAMI -- The smile on Ron Artest's face grew as the long-winded question was being asked.

It wasn't so much a question, really, as it was a mini history lesson on the Miami Heat's recent struggles.
They were on a five-game losing streak. They were 5-13 in games decided by five points or less. They were 1-9 against the top five teams in the league. They were 1-14 on potential tying or go-ahead shots in the last 10 seconds of games this season.

They are now also 2-0 against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may have just breathed new life into a Heat team that was on life support, judging from the stories coming out of Miami this week.
This should be cause for some concern for the Lakers, right?

"I remember when I was in Chicago we won 13 games and we beat the Lakers twice," Artest said. "That's history. I guess I was a part of history. Put that in that building -- what do they call it in Washington D.C. with the presidents and Martin Luther King? Put that in Capitol Hill."

Artest's Bulls actually went 21-61 in 2001-02 under Tim Floyd, but they did beat Phil Jackson's Lakers twice during the regular season. The Bulls missed out on the playoffs that year, while the Lakers went on to win a third straight championship.

"Sometimes it's hard to explain things to you guys," Artest said. "No offense, but sometimes you guys don't focus."

The focus for the Lakers now -- as it was when they were routinely losing to marquee and not-so-marquee teams before the All-Star break -- is simple. It's the playoffs.

They don't live and die with wins and losses on a nightly basis during the regular season like fans and pundits who judge the quality of their play by the final outcome and not by effort and execution, which will usually outweigh lucky bounces and officiating discrepancies over a seven-game series.

"I'm not really worried about it," said Kobe Bryant of the Lakers' inability to beat the Heat this season and the possibility that they may have given a team in need of some confidence a major shot in the arm.
Bryant believes the Lakers' approach towards the regular season comes from Phil Jackson, who, after 11 championship seasons as a head coach, understands that a win or a loss in March doesn't usually decide a team's fate in June.

"Phil's not really tripping off a regular-season game," Bryant said. "He never has."

As far as the Heat are concerned, Bryant obviously sees them as a challenge but isn't about to shower them with praise just because they've beaten the Lakers twice this season.

"They're still working out some things," Bryant said. "You can see they're still trying to figure out who's going to do what."

The Lakers have long known who's going to do what for them. It begins and ends with Bryant at the end of games, for better or for worse. While the Heat are still trying to figure out whether to give the ball to LeBron James of Dwyane Wade in pressure situations, the Lakers made sure to get the ball in Bryant's hands Thursday against the Heat, and his effort fell in the "for worse" department on this night.

After tying the game 88-88 with a 28-foot 3-pointer with 2:26 remaining in the game, Bryant proceeded to miss his next two attempts and lost the ball out of bounds on another possession. It was a familiar sight for the Heat's fans, who have grown accustomed to seeing their star players choke away wins this season, but it will always be unfamiliar territory for Bryant.

"You live with it," Bryant said after the game, sitting in front of his locker. "I take it hard and I look at it and I try to do better. That's part of the responsibility. You got to take the good with the bad."

Not long after making those comments and about an hour after the game had ended, Bryant was back on the floor, practicing shot after shot at the same basket he was unable to connect with at the end of the game. He was still cursing himself and the basket after misses, shooting again and again for over an hour until his shirt was drenched with sweat and he was satisfied with his efforts.

While the Lakers may have breathed new life into the Heat on Thursday, you couldn't help feeling that maybe they had breathed new life into Bryant and the Lakers as well, as Bryant went through his late-night workout until American Airlines Arena shut down.

The Lakers didn't begin the season hoping to finish the regular season on a long winning streak. They lost seven of their last 11 games last season before winning the championship.

They didn't begin the season hoping to win 60-plus games. They went 57-25 last season and two years before that en route to the NBA Finals.

They began the season wanting to win a championship in June; not a regular-season game in March.
That's what ultimately drove Bryant back to the court long after everyone had left the arena. It wasn't so much about the game that had just ended as it was about the game he hopes to be playing here in three months.

"It will be much more enjoyable coming back to Miami in the summertime," Bryant said. "If we win another one."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.