So it finally happened. The Heat v Lakers game that everyone has been salivating over for the past few months. Only that it was a bit of an anticlimax, and instead of seeing two powerhouse teams slog it out, we saw one completely whoop the other. Was I surprised? No. I know these games mean more to Lakers opponents than they do to the Lakers themselves. I know that the Lakers seem to struggle to peak for big regular season games. I know that the Heat were in better form. I know that they wanted to make a statement to the reigning champions, and I know that Eric Spoelstra had extra motivation to beat Phil Jackson after PJ’s comments earlier in the season. It all pointed towards the Heat ruining Christmas in LA, and that is exactly what happened. But despite the fact I saw this coming, there were still a few valuable insights we gained from watching these elite teams battle it out while we ate turkey.
Chris Bosh might be Miami’s most consistent performer right now. Early in the first quarter, while Kobe, Lebron and Wade were still feeling out the game, Bosh was already at work. By the time he checked out with 3 minutes left in the quarter, he’d scored 9 points, had a thunderous dunk, pulled down 6 rebounds, and assisted on 2 buckets. By half time he’d scored 18 points from all over the floor – anyone who thought Miami’s bigs would be their weak point was being proven wrong. He finished with 24-13 on 11-17 shooting, and more importantly, very surprisingly, completely overshadowed Pau Gasol. Chris Bosh was superb in this game, he really was. On nights like this he’s the best 3rd-banana in the league and its not even close.
Miami’s team defense was the key to this game. They ran out to shooters, intercepted passing lanes, doubled teamed Kobe and Gasol effectively, and played with a heap of energy. It was contagious and it resulted in a lot of easy points for them at the other end. For a while there, they were playing defense at a Boston-like level. They didn’t sustain it for the entire game mind you, but it was there. It was a glimpse that this Heat team can indeed challenge for a championship this season. I wasn’t sure of this before yesterday, but seeing them lock down the Lakers the way they did, I’m starting to believe.
Kobe Bryant didn’t look himself yesterday. He did the right thing early by trying to get his teammates involved (he should have had 12+ assists), but when the game was there to be grabbed by the horns, Kobe curiously went missing. Actually, he deferred to his team mates way too often in this game, even down the stretch. I’ve watched a lot of Kobe Bryant over the years, and I can tell you, even when he’s trying to do the team thing, he will first and foremost always look for his own shot. Yesterday he made a lot of passes after he had left his feet – usually some of those end up being shots. And when the game was still winnable for the Lakers in the fourth, Kobe seemed kind of quiet. A watered-down Kobe. He wouldn’t normally waste the opportunity to upstage Lebron and Wade on one of the biggest games of the year (last year he went for 35-9-8 even though Lebron and the Cavs whooped them). He’s too competitive for that.
I put some of it down to injury. Kobe is clearly not 100% healthy. He is not fully mobile and doesn’t have the lift on his jump shots. We know he’s still recovering from knee surgery but it tends to be forgotten because Kobe is so quick to shoot down any injury talk. Reporters don’t get quotes from Kobe talking about playing at 80%, or trying to regain full strength. “I’m fine” is all you’ll get. But he’s not fine, and it was obvious yesterday.
The main reason though was that he simply had his butt kicked by Wade and Lebron.
Wade caused a lot of problems for LA. His match up with Kobe was intriguing, and too often he beat Kobe to spots on the floor that allowed him to make a weakly-contested jump shot or finish at the rim. This is a match up that gets overlooked. Focus tends to be on Artest vs Lebron, with the expectation that Kobe can handle Wade. The reality is that Kobe isn’t as quick as he once was, and that Wade is too lethal off the dribble. Combined with the Lakers need for Kobe to be more focused on scoring that defense, it is actually a nightmare scenario for LA. Kobe can’t get any rest on the defensive end with this Miami team. Against Boston he can at least switch from Ray to Rondo, leaving some other poor bugger to chase Ray around a million screens. Against Miami? No such luck. Kobe will need to be locked in 100% on the defensive end 100% of the time. Wade knows this. Coach Spoelstra knows this. If a Finals match up between these teams does eventuate, one of the most important questions will be how Kobe can cope with this assignment.
Then there’s Lebron James. While starting to write down my thoughts on Lebron, I felt a tinge of deja vu and went back through the archives to check my Christmas Day post from last year. I found myself writing almost exactly the same thing again. Here’s how I summarised Lebron’s performance last year:
When the Staples Center crowd turned feral Lebron ushered his guys in to a circle, mouthing some words of wisdom to keep them focused. Most of the Lakers players were still finding excuses to argue with the officials, the crowd still going nuts. But everything in Lebron’s world was under control. That is probably the best way I can described Lebron’s performance today – “in control”. He was in complete control of this game from start to finish, it really was a masterful performance without being overly dominant. The kind of intangible omnipresence on a game that an aging MJ exuded in spades, and that Kobe had only recently mastered. It extended all the way to the post-game on-court interview, where Lebron looked about as unexcited as you could possibly imagine. No third person references, no self-glorification, not one whiff of ego. In other words, everything I’ve ever asked for of Lebron over the past few years. The little things.
This is how I felt about Lebron yesterday. In control. Super focus, minimal fuss and fanfare (apart from a little trash talking with Kobe). He made the right play over and over again. When given space, he drained threes. When teammates were open, he found them. When Artest tried to hurt Lebron’s feelings, Lebron turned around and hurt the Lakers on the scoreboard. He got the triple-double and he had 4 steals, but it felt like 10 steals because he had a hand in almost every Laker turnover. Truth be told, it wasn’t a dominant display by his lofty standards, and some of you are probably reading this thinking “Rob, Lebron does these things in most games, why the fuss?”. I asked myself the same question, and the answer keeps coming back to this: I’ve never been really sure if Lebron gets it. I thought he did last year, but then he collapsed under pressure against the Celtics, and made the decision to flee Cleveland and join his buddies in South Beach. A lot of questions have been asked of Lebron during this time – the guy has been under a microscope.
But watching him yesterday, I realised that is all just the macro stuff. The stuff on the outside. The stuff that goes on inside our heads, inside the newspapers. The stuff that is fun to talk and argue about. You don’t need a microscope for that. Hell, it doesn’t even really exist.
When it comes to the micro stuff, the stuff that happens for 48 minutes on the court in between picks and rolls and X’s and O’s, Lebron James fucking dominates. He gets it alright. And maybe I just forgot that.
So why the fuss? Because Lebron James is locked in, he’s perfected the micro stuff, he has help. And when that all comes together, it looks like yesterday’s Christmas Day game. An unstoppable juggernaut destroying whatever lies in its path. We saw a glimpse of it, and it will only get scarier.
Merry Christmas Kobe.