Thursday night’s marquee matchup between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers was billed as a prelude to the NBA Finals. Instead, those who anticipated a showdown between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were letdown as the Heat dominated the Lakers in a crushing 98-87 victory at American Airlines Arena.
It was all Heat, all LeBron, all night long. James missed shoot around Thursday morning with flulike symptoms but turned in one of the best performances of the season. Dressed in their new all-black alternate uniforms for the occasion, Miami played without Dwyane Wade for the fifth time this season and a less-than-healthy King James, despite illness, was more-than-willing to carry the load. Bryant and James entered the game as the NBA’s top two leaders in scoring, first and second respectively. But the much-anticipated shootout between the superstars never materialized, as James –who showed no signs of illness– prevailed in the lopsided victory to erupt for 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists with three blocks and four steals, leaving Kobe and the Lakers sick in defeat.
Bryant had just10 points entering the fourth quarter and began the game 1-of-9 from the field. The Heat’s newly acquired “Kobe stopper” Shane Battier, who started his second game of the season, scored 11 points with six rebounds and led the way defensively on Bryant, holding the Lakers’ superstar to just 24 points on 8-of-21 shooting. Kobe looked nothing like the player who scored 48, 40, 42 and 42 in four consecutive games from Jan. 10-14. And since then, he has a two-game total of 38 points. Maybe the wear and tear of the truncated season is aggravating the torn ligament in his right wrist. Whatever the case, Kobe and the Lakers looked out of sync against the Heat. They failed to use their advantage inside with Pau Gasol (had a season-high 26 points) and Andrew Bynum (15 points, 12 rebounds). Meta World Peace –formerly known as Ron Artest– (seven points) continued his poor shooting as L.A. couldn’t matchup against Miami’s depth.
Miami’s lead was 52-37 at the half, as their hot shooting against San Antonio on Tuesday buoyed over to the first half against Los Angeles. The Heat made 8-of-13 shots from behind the arc, with Battier going 3-of-6, Mario Chalmers (10 points, six assists) hitting 2-of-3 and Mike Miller and James Jones knocking down their only attempts from 3-point range. In the four quarters between the second half of Tuesday’s victory over the Spurs and the first two quarters against the Lakers, the Heat was a combined 20-of-28 from downtown. After a suffocating defensive stand forced the Lakers to miss 18 of their first 24 shots, there was no let-up in the second-half. James scored nine points and Chris Bosh (15 points) was 4-for-4 from the floor in the third quarter, and even with the Lakers shooting 56 percent in the period, the Heat pushed their lead to 21 entering the final period with score 77-56.
As the Lakers struggled, LeBron dazzled. He flew down court for a fast-break tomahawk dunk, leaped into the lap of Jeffrey Loria and made sure the Florida Marlins owner escaped the collision unscathed. He showed off his range with a couple of threes before he dropped a left-handed half-hook in the post over Lakers’ forward Matt Barnes (three points) and he even put in work on the defensive end as he climbed mount Bynum to block the 7-footer’s shot attempt late in the game.
Despite’s James tremendous display, the Black Mamba was able to put together a late run on his own to attempt a Lakers comeback. Bryant bank in a 3-pointer and followed that seconds later with a steal and a transition dunk that got L.A. within 94-84 with two minutes left to play. But Derek Fisher’s (two points) 3-point try on the next Lakers possession caromed off the front of the rim and Miami’s Udonis Haslem (eight points, eight rebounds) was able to secure the rebound and outlet the ball to James who converted a 15-foot runner over Bynum to seal the outcome, 98-87, Miami.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, James has eight 30-point games thus far, the most in the NBA this season. He’s shooting over 55 percent from the field and if he remains on this pace that would be a career-high. Over the past 25 seasons, there have been just 10 instances of a player reaching 31points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks, in the same game. The only two players to do it twice is James and Michael Jordan. D. Wade, Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon, David Robinson, C. Webb, KG and Oliver Miller round out the list.
Kobe passed Bill Russell (40,726) for 21st on the NBA’s all-time minutes played list. Michael Jordan is next in line. At his current pace, Bryant should become No. 5 on the league’s career list in points to surpass Shaquille O’Neal and free throws made passing Jerry West before the All-Star break.
Beleaguered center Eddy Curry made his return to the Miami Heat with 2:20 left in the first quarter and scored a layup on his first touch, on a assists from James. Curry, 29, who has been plagued by injuries and obesity, hadn’t played in an NBA game since Dec. 17, 2009 and only competed in three games for the New York Knicks in the ’08-’09 season. He finished with six points and three rebounds in six minutes of action.
Los Angeles (10-6) will head to Orlando to face Dwight Howard and the Magic on Friday. Miami (10-4), who are 5-0 without Wade in the lineup, will host the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. (Photo)