Two weeks of disappointment and embarrassment were forgotten in one night. All it took was one clean strip and one thunderous dunk against the L.A. Lakers for the Miami Heat to be considered a member of the NBA elite once again.
With the score tied at 88 and over a minute-and-a-half remaining in the contest, it was make-or-break time for the Heat once again. They were in nearly the same exact position they had been in too many times before.
Matchups against the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls that were all close in the end and resulted in losses for the Heat all represented moments in time when the team failed to close out. This game against Los Angeles was no different, as the game was back and forth all night (18 lead changes overall), and the balance of power shifted from each team periodically over the length of the enduring contest.
Kobe Bryant had been in this situation countless times. He had already worked his team back to tie the game with back-to-back three-pointers, but it was his matchup with Dwyane Wade that stole the show.
Bryant stared down his successor beyond the three-point line with the clock ticking precious seconds away. Bryant looked into the eyes of a player who was ready to take his position as the top guard of the league.
Bryant drove left and Wade, the three-time NBA All-Defensive second-team member, was ready. Wade poked the ball away and the onlooking Mike Bibby dove to the ground to send it back to Wade.
With Bryant and Derek Fisher trailing him, Wade looked to his left and saw one of the most beautiful sights for any NBA player to see: a streaking LeBron James. Wade gave it out and James finished to give the Heat a 90-88 lead. The Lakers wouldn’t score again, and the Heat would win, 94-88.
A team that had only a week ago blown a 24-point second-half lead to the Magic had just outscored the defending back-to-back champions 6-0 in the final minute-and-a-half.
Dwyane Wade was the same defender who allowed Luol Deng to get wide open in a corner to make a dagger three-pointer only a few weeks ago. Chris Bosh, with his 24 points and nine rebounds Thursday, was the same guy who had missed 17 of his 18 shots in the same game against the Bulls.
Thursday, the Heat secured a 94-88 win at the American Airlines Arena against an extremely angry Los Angeles Lakers squad that was riding a seven-game winning streak and had yet to lose since the All-Star break.
The Lakers might have been angry with revenge on the brain, but the Heat were hungry for a win, and they knew that this would be the game to erase those clear and vivid memories that had moved the team to tears the week before.
The Heat and their fans cried only tears of joy and relief after this game.
Miami ended its five-game losing streak and looked like a scary team doing it. Even with the lapse in offense in the third quarter—when we saw a few too many jump shots—the Heat came through with the key plays that they had only watched other teams complete against them.
Those plays produced a regular-season sweep for the Heat against the Lakers and a much-needed win against an elite team that featured a few Miami players playing completely out of their usual mindsets.
With Dwyane Wade taking over in the fourth quarter, everyone forgot that this was Chris Bosh’s game.
When being interviewed after his dismal seven-point and four-rebound performance against Portland, Bosh demanded that the team find him more open looks in the low post and near the basket. He was nothing more than a jump shooter over the past few months, and it was getting on the last nerve of every Heat fan to not see the Bosh the team signed from Toronto.
It wouldn’t come easily to Bosh Thursday, as he was being defended by the crafty and lengthy Pau Gasol. In almost perfect fashion, the first Heat basket of the game came from none other than Bosh, who took a bounce pass from James inside the lane for one of the easiest shots he has made in weeks.
A few trips later, he dunked on Gasol, a power move that no one has seen since, well, the last time Bosh and the Heat played the Lakers.
He led the team in points, but Wade led the team to the win.
Wade has been heedlessly criticized for his lackadaisical defense and his inability to stick on his man; some say he shadows and double-teams players that don’t always need to be double-teamed. It’s reasons like that why Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics constantly kills the Heat—Wade isn’t locking him down like he did last night on Kobe Bryant.
In fact, it was Wade’s defense that contributed to a majority of this victory.
Bryant started the game making his first four shots, each one more impressive than the last, yet he finished 4-of-17 to end the game, with two of those makes coming late in the fourth quarter.
It was the usual “hero ball” for Kobe, who not once gave it up to Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest or any other player for that matter. He was feeling it, and he thought he could lead the Lakers to an eighth-consecutive victory.
With the way Dwyane Wade was playing defense, it wasn’t happening. If games win a player Defensive Player of the Year, then Wade won it last night for his second-half defense on Bryant, as he stifled one of the most volatile and dangerous players in the league’s history.
There was no breathing room for Bryant, and he didn’t attempt one shot last night that wasn’t hotly contested by Wade. It was a matchup for the ages and it was a motivated Dwyane Wade that we haven’t seen since, well, the last time Wade and the Heat played the Lakers.
All of this “Wade and Bosh” talk—and I haven’t mentioned LeBron James and his 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
Even then, you can say James was overshadowed by the role players actually stepping up and providing some support to a Heat team that was in desperate need of some help from someone beyond the “big three.”
Mario Chalmers hit three three-pointers in the first quarter, Mike Miller had two in the second and third and Mike Bibby finished it off with two fourth-quarter three-pointers—the exact reason why he was brought in.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn’t too bad either, as his length continually played a factor in the way the Lakers’ offense was run.
The best part of this game was how the Heat won it and in such clean fashion. They won it with hard-nosed, stifling defense that was complete with close-outs with actual effort.
Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were the only members of the Lakers to shoot 50 percent or better, which can be excused considering that there aren’t too many defensive options for each player.
Miami gets the day off before taking on the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday at the American Airlines Arena. The Grizzlies are the same team that embarrassed the Heat in mid-November, when the Wade-less team allowed Rudy Gay to hit a buzzer-beating game-winner over LeBron James, giving Miami one of its worst losses of the season. Heat fans remember this, and there is no doubt that the Heat team remembers this as well.
They were there, after all.
So what team did we see last night? It sure wasn’t the same team we’d been watching and ridiculing for the past two weeks.
We hadn’t seen Chris Bosh scoring the majority of his points in the paint and not off of jump shots. We hadn’t witnessed Dwyane Wade playing some of the hardest and most restricting defense in the league this season. We hadn’t seen the bench outscore the opposition’s bench.
Last night, we saw a team—a motivated and inspired team—that was hell-bent on winning a game that it desperately needed. It shouldn’t have to come down to this for the team to end a season-long five-game losing streak, but it’s a win nonetheless, and both teams played their hearts out to get the victory.
Even with a determined Kobe Bryant on one end, the Heat were tired of the criticism that they had warranted and it was time to put a stop to it.
There’s always that one breakthrough game for every struggling team. The 2005-06 Heat team needed a 30-point loss to the Mavericks before they could get back on track, so maybe the 2010-11 Heat team needed a five-game losing streak (when they blew double-digit leads in four of them) to get the juices flowing and the team inspired.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true, because the Heat hadn’t played a game as motivated and inspired as they did last night in a while.
So are the Heat ready for a championship run? Maybe. Are all the kinks worked out? Not at all.
This team still has countless problems with the way the offense is run (just watch the third quarter) and there are still defensive problems that persist at key positions. However, the team did figure out a lot about itself last night, the most important thing being that the closer on this team is Dwyane Wade—he always has been and always will be.
I don’t want to make assumptions, but chances are the Heat win a few of those games over the past few weeks if the ball is in Wade’s hands when the game is on the line.
Is this the Heat we’ll see from here on out? Probably not until the postseason, when motivation, momentum and inspiration are key components of a championship team.
The Heat might have finally bested one of the best, but they still have a long way to go before they think of championship glory. There are still two teams in the Eastern Conference that they have yet to figure out, along with a few teams in the West that they could potentially meet in the finals if they do make it that far.
However, if we continue to see a team rather than five individuals, this is one of the best teams in the league—if not the best.
The talk of a failed experiment or the lack of chemistry will be put aside for now and it will show up once the Heat lose again, but let Miami revel in its hard-earned victory over a Lakers team that came in ready to win and take advantage of a team that was down and out.
The postseason is right around the corner and Heat fans can only hope that they see the team from last night from here on out and especially in the playoffs.
The most difficult leg of the season is almost over, with home games against Memphis, San Antonio and Oklahoma City coming up before meetings with Atlanta and Denver to end the tumultuous stretch. As long as the Heat can continue to play like a team, there should be no worries.
Order has been restored in Miami for now and the feeling of winning has once again fallen over the city of Miami like the smell of the ocean that is only a few feet away from the arena.
It’s a system that Miami can possibly get used to.