Kobe lets Heat off the hook

David Stern and the executives at ESPN, ABC and TNT can breathe again.

Thursday night, with Miami Heat lovers and haters surely transfixed on their couches and barstools across the country, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers botched a chance to bury the Big Three, the most compelling TV stars since Tony Soprano, Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy Bonpensiro.

Make no mistake, the Heat’s 94-88 victory was more of a blown hit by Bryant than a dramatic season save by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

And I’m not saying the reeling Heat did not save their season last night inside AmericanAirlines Arena. They did.

By snapping a five-game losing streak and completing a two-game sweep of the defending champions, the Heat reminded everyone — and most importantly themselves —they can compete with the elite when the Big Three get a little help from their soldiers.

Had Miami lost Thursday night, the Big Three were toast. There would be no reason to take them seriously the rest of the year.

Things played out perfectly for the Heat. They got 22 points and 16 rebounds off their bench. Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby knocked down seven three-pointers. Bosh backed up his demand for the ball in the low post with 24 points and nine boards. James put together a masterful, almost flawless all-around game, finishing with 19 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and just one turnover.

And down the stretch, Wade repeatedly drove to the basket and finished at the rim.

A loss Thursday night would’ve destroyed the Heat mentally and emotionally. It would’ve been a repeat of the Chicago game, complete with postgame tears.

Phil Jackson showed the Heat virtually no respect. Leading up to the game, he taunted their Chicago tears and ridiculed Miami’s “Xbox,” one-on-one offense. It seemed Jackson intentionally gave Miami a mental advantage.

Riding an eight-game winning streak, Jackson probably thought he was fattening the Heat for slaughter.

Kobe blew the hit. The Heat were ripe. The score was tied 80-80 with about five minutes to play. Kobe drained two fool’s-gold three-pointers, putting the Lakers up a point with the first and tying the score at 88-88 with the second.

And then in the final two minutes, Kobe shot the Lakers out of the game and turned it over. Down two with 66 seconds left, Kobe launched a baseline three a few seconds into the 24-second shot clock. Wade blocked the shot. Kobe whined about being fouled. Down four with 20 seconds left, Kobe unleashed a ridiculous 29-footer.

Had James turned in Kobe’s 2-for-11 second half and 2-minute meltdown, the basketball world would crucify James today.

Instead, in Miami today, the conversation is going to be about Wade taking over in the fourth quarter and proving he’s the true leader and closer for the Heat, not LeBron James. It’s a bogus narrative. It’s a clever and sexy talking point. On TNT’s pregame show Charles Barkley called for Wade to take over the Heat and the basketball in the final minutes.

Everybody, it seems, wants to pit Wade against James.

I hope Wade isn’t stupid. There’s a reason James was the back-to-back MVP and led the Cavaliers to back-to-back 60-plus-win seasons while Wade’s Heat were winning 43 and 47 games. I hope Wade doesn’t confuse “closing” with “winning.”

LeBron James knows plenty about winning regular-season games. He’s not some terrible player in the clutch, either. He’s the most talented player in the NBA. He’s learning how to be a good teammate. James was a better teammate Thursday night than Kobe was. And that’s not a knock on Kobe.

The NBA is a very selfish league right now. Too many of its stars didn’t learn how to compete and sacrifice in college. As good as Kobe is, he’s not the kind of consistent, smart, end-game decision-maker that Magic, Bird, Jordan and Isiah were.

Today’s players have to learn how to be unselfish. James is learning this year, sharing the load with Wade. James set a terrific screen late in the game that freed Wade for one of his buckets. I can’t ever remember seeing that from James.

Catering to Wade offensively in the fourth quarter made sense Thursday night. Spoelstra rested Wade the first four minutes of the quarter. Wade had fresh legs and used them to get to the rim. Good for him. Smart basketball.

The Heat were smarter than the Lakers on Thursday night.

The Heat didn’t solve all their problems with the victory. They simply remained relevant, which is good for the league.