This was the definition of a must-win game, as tired as that sports cliche is. To boost confidence and moral, to quiet the critics, to prove themselves.
It was also just one regular season victory. Plenty of work remains with the playoffs just around the corner. The Big 3 still get stuck sometimes forcing the issue and are prone to turning the ball over when it sticks to their hands for too long.
But what a victory, won in crunch time less to the defending champions (ie. an elite team!
), that the Heat and their embattled coach needed to stay afloat in the conference standings and an impressive showing for a struggling Chris Bosh as the cherry on top.
Dwyane Wade was given the chance to handle the ball in the closing minutes and came through yet LeBron James was still contributing. Though Wade was struggling through three quarters, the supporting cast at long last helped the Big 3 out. First it was Mario Chalmers (who has officially woken up since the Bibby/Arroyo switch) who had the hot hand early with all 9 of his points in the first quarter. Mike Miller then scored 8 points and grabbed 4 rebounds, 3 of them on offense, to complement Bosh's 12 points in the second quarter.
The third quarter was the Heat's weakest of the game and it shouldn't be a revelation that coincidentally enough no Heat player besides the Big 3 scored in those 12 minutes.
Even newbie Mike Bibby was a threat from the outside with two 3-pointers in quick fashion and a third one waived one because it came after a whistle from the refs. What's important is the word "threat" because it forced the Lakers to respect his shot, enabling more freedom for LeBron and Wade to work. During the Heat's losing streak there was absolutely no support from the Heat's shooters and although I'd still like to see James Jones and Eddie House get a chance in games when the team has been struggling from the outside, the rotation did come through this time.
Bosh was able to do his damage inside against a group of Lakers bigs that certainly have length, talent and offensive skills but the reality is that they're pretty soft to allow the embattled Heat power forward to do pretty much whatever he wanted by the rim. Andrew Bynum was having a superb week but looked tame even when Bosh was hit with two fouls in the first quarter and was replaced by Juwan Howard. He finally woke up in the second half, grabbing 7 rebounds in the third quarter, but still ended up just 4-5 from the field for the entire game. Combine that with an underwhelming 20 points and 5 rebounds from Gasol (with an appropriate 0 points in +/-) along with 11 points and 5 rebounds in just 19 minutes for Lamar Odom and you realize the Lakers threw away their biggest advantage against a team with a well-known glaring weakness in the middle. This had happened in the first game between these teams on Christmas day, with Bosh scoring the same amount of points, but Bynum sat out due to injury.
This time it was the Lakers stars looking around for support while teammates Steve Blake and Ron Artest made poor decisions with the ball. Take away Odom and the rest of the Lakers bench only had 5 points (all from the free throw line), 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal from Blake, Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown. (And yes, I'm not writing about a certain player just yet for a reason.)
And it was the Heat with the balanced attack who were in control in crunch time with the pressure on the other team to catch up. For every Lakers basket down the stretch the Heat were able to actually respond back with their own timely shot, a rarity these days in the American Airlines Arena.
The Heat's oddly constructed roster somehow matches up well with the Lakers but has trouble with teams like the upcoming opponent Memphis Grizzlies. For now it appears the biggest test for the Heat in the playoffs will be getting out of the East and not the Finals. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. With a playoff berth assured after the Heat victory, the team needs to keep working on getting rid of pesky bad habits and figure out the definitive role for each player in the shortened playoff rotation and settle it with such few games left.