LOS ANGELES — It looks like the Miami Heat are back on the right track — on and off the court.
LeBron James scored 10 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth quarter to give the defending NBA champions a hard-fought 99-90 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Thursday night.
In the judgment of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, it was more than just a win to even their record on the trip at 3-3.
“From the very first day we left Miami,” Spoelstra said, “we wanted to accomplish a few things. One, we wanted to connect together as a group away from (home), and we wanted to build a road resolve; a toughness to find ways to win games when you’re not shooting the ball particularly well.
“On the road when things don’t always go your way and you don’t have the momentum and confidence of your home crowd, you just have to find a way to win. (Tonight) is a perfect example.
“We never got into a real flow offensively until late in the game, then we did the things necessary to win. Give the Laker defense credit though, especially Dwight Howard, who protects the paint as well as anybody in this league. But our aggressiveness tied it all together on both ends of the court.
“The other thing we wanted to do was to get better. Step by step, we think that ultimately we got better on this road trip.”
With James, of course, leading the way offensively and defensively.
Along with the 39 points, he also guarded a suddenly hot Kobe Bryant, who had scored 10 of the Lakers first 18 points in the final quarter. But the reigning MVP held the NBA’s leading scorer to just three points down the stretch to help seal the Miami win.
“I just went out there and did my job,” said James, who asked Spoelstra to put him on Bryant after his early-quarter explosion. “He’s a guy who’s scored 30,000 points in this league, so he’s going to make a couple … and we can live with that. But we wanted to contest his shots, so I did what I could to slow him down.”
After a slow start, Bryant finished with 22 points, but took some of the responsibility for the loss.
“I allowed myself to be too much of a decoy,” Bryant said. “I should have been more aggressive from the start, using screens and catching and shooting. But we just didn’t execute very well and they did.”
Which is something that can be expected on a nightly basis from the defending world champions, a team with the knowledge of how to close out games. But the Heat lost six of their last eleven prior to Thursday and were in danger of dropping out of the top spot in the East before beating the Warriors Wednesday night.
Chris Bosh said that no matter how good your team is or what is on the line, sometimes things just don’t go the way you hope they will.
“We’re not invincible,” said Bosh, who contributed seven points, six rebounds and six steals. “It’s not always going to be all good and sometimes you have times that bring you back to reality.
“That can be good for you as a team, and I think it helped us put things back together the last two games.”
1 — It’s said that the winners write the accounts of history. If that’s indeed the case, King James is going to author one hell of a book when he retires. He is, without debate, the best, most talented and most athletic player in the NBA. When he hangs up his sneakers in another decade or so, there’s a great chance he’ll be recognized as the greatest player ever. Of course the Michael Jordan fanatics will never accept that, and neither will the Kobe supporters. Both sides can absolutely make great cases for their guys, but James is the ultimate combination of basketball skill and overall athleticism. If you try to stop him on the blocks, he’ll knock you into the next week and score. If you try to pick him up high, he’ll blast around you, take off from the free-throw line and dunk on you, as he did the against the Lakers on Thursday. Even if he never wins another championship — which is very unlikely — he will one day claim the top spot on the list of NBA immortals.
2 — Got a chance to talk with two of my favorite former Lakers — Shaquille O’Neal and Pat Riley — before Thursday’s game. Shaq was in town to do the TNT pregame and postgame shows, while Riles — president and part owner of the Heat, was catching up with his team. Shaq will have his jersey retired by the Lakers on April 3 during a ceremony at Staples Center. That’s not enough. He and Riley should have statues erected outside the arena. They are hugely important parts in seven of the eleven titles the Lakers have won in LA … and if Shaq doesn’t leave some money on the table in Orlando to sign with the Lakers in 1996, there is no Three-Peat and no Phil Jackson era. Riley took over as head coach in 1981 during one of the most turbulent times in franchise history, and led them to seven Finals appearances and four championships. Both of these Laker icons belong in bronze for all the gold they helped bring to LA.
3 — I do strongly disagree with Shaq and his TNT colleagues Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley who all said that Dwight Howard shouldn’t have been voted to the All-Star team as a starter. He certainly hasn’t put up career numbers, but he’s playing every night after back surgery just nine months ago. He wasn’t even supposed to return to action until later this month, yet he was in the lineup on Opening Night. Even though there isn’t a center position on the ballot — just spots for three frontcourt players — Howard is still the best big man in the league and absolutely deserves the All-Star starter recognition.