What was supposed to have been an epic battle between two of the top teams in the NBA instead turned into one of the easier victories for the Miami Heat so far this season.
As well as the Heat had been playing this month, their struggles to beat the Washington Wizards just a few games ago exemplified how any team, regardless of their talent deficit on paper, can have a chance to win by playing with heart and determination.
This Christmas, the Lakers showed none of that.
The Milwaukee Bucks proved it with tiny 5'5" Earl Boykins leading the way to beat the Lakers, their last game before this Christmas showdown would provide the first chance at beating an elite team. They had four whole days to rest at home and prepare for the Heat. None of it mattered.
In many ways, this year's Lakers team resembles the 06-07 Miami Heat roster, largely unchanged from their championship run just months before. That team collectively figured they could coast their way through the regular season and eventually their problems would solve themselves simply because they had done it before. This Lakers team so far has proven very little except that they can win on talent alone against the weaker teams in the league. While their soft schedule thus far isn't their fault, it gave them the perfect cushion to rack up wins while the media focused their attention on the new-look Heat team and focus like a laser beam after every loss to micro-analyze what went wrong and how overrated they were. Even Phil Jackson had an opinion on the matter while the Lakers looked on from their place at the top.
If Lakers fans think that all of this will somehow solve itself once Andrew Bynum is at 100% health then they're in for a rude awakening. Relying on someone who thus far in his career never seems fully healthy by playoff time is fool's gold, as is hoping that they somehow magically become like last year's Boston Celtics team that turned it on right before the playoffs after a mediocre regular season.
As for the game at hand, does an analysis of stats and a breakdown of what went down even necessary? The Lakers only had a marginal lead as late as the midway point of the first quarter and were never close enough to even challenge the Heat. Whenever they scored a couple of baskets in a row leading you to believe the hometown team would make a run and make this game interesting, the Heat would simply clamp down on defense and score on their end. Chris Bosh made his case that he truly deserves to be an All-Star this year as he continued his steady play this entire season by pacing the Heat with 18 of his 24 points in the first half while LeBron James almost quietly amassed enough for his 31st triple-double of his career. With this much support, you'd be forgiven if you had completely forgotten about Dwyane Wade's sore knee and how he was questionable for the game. D-Wade was in attack mode all game and continuously tested the Lakers defense with his aggressiveness while his defense against Kobe Bryant was outstanding, frustrating the NBA Finals MVP throughout the game.
Ron Artest can continue to attempt to play head games if he chooses, even go so far as saying before the game, "I'll do something...to make (LeBron) mad." But give credit to LeBron, Artest's foolish attempt to get under his skin by putting him in a head lock only caused the opposite effect, much like the boos from the Cleveland and New York crowds did. The whole Heat team in fact, refused to let any distractions affect them on their way to their most impressive victory yet this season. The Lakers simply wilted under pressure as the Heat put on a defensive clinic.
For now, this Heat team has won nothing and the Lakers are the two-time defending champions. Of course that counts for something. Until they're beat four times in a playoff series, the Lakers can still hold on to that. But this year's playoff run will no doubt be more taxing. The Dallas Mavs are stronger, the San Antonio Spurs are clicking on all cylinders and the Oklahoma City Thunder can only get better. And that's just the Western Conference.
For the Heat, it's a long road to get to the top and only a sustained effort to build on what has been done so far is needed. Incorporating Mike Miller will be the next tangible step but a renewed focus on defense and a better understanding of how their unstoppable transition game can wreak havoc on the opposing team's defense has been the catalyst for this impressive December. Only 32 games into this season and the Heat are silencing their critics, one win at a time.