By Dennis J. Freeman
The Christmas Day matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat ended up being a lopsided affair. The anticipated duel between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James fizzled. What happened was that the Lakers got punked on their home court for the second year in a row by a James-led team. Last year, James took the Cleveland Cavaliers into Staples Center and bounced the Lakers out of their own building.
This year’s holiday special was much the same way as James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh showed a nationally-televised audience that they are no gimmick squad. Miami is the real deal. And all the haters hating on James because he left a talent-depleted Cavaliers team for sun-soaked fun Miami should probably go somewhere and bury their heads in the South Beach sand.
What the Heat showed me was that they can compete with any elite team, let alone beat down the two-time defending champions. What was also apparent is that the Lakers have a lot of work to do to correct some of the flaws dogging the team lately. One of those correctable flaws is picking up intensity. Sure, this a long season, but to show little or no energy in a game that has been plastered on everybody’s scorecard for the past few months is simply inexcusable.
The Lakers played this game like they didn’t know it was coming. The excuses for their poor play are piling up just as the defeats are. Looking past Milwaukee, which did them in a couple of days earlier, is also another far-reaching application when it comes to competing.
To me, this is more than a little swoon coming over the Lakers. In analyzing the Lakers’ biggest loss of the season, in terms of caliber of opponent, the Purple and Gold have several mitigating factors affecting them.
Age, is for one. The Lakers have had a marvelous three-year run into the NBA Finals. And, except for a meltdown in Game 5 in the 2008 NBA Finals, the Lakers would be three-time champions. What the Lakers have been able to do since the arrival of Pau Gasol has been nothing short of phenomenal. Bryant, in my opinion, the best two-guard in the history of the league and a Top 5 all-time player, has been spectacular during this run. Lamar Odom has been dominant and Derek Fisher has been clutch.
But age catches up with everyone. And every team in the NBA, with the exception of the Charlotte Bobcats, has upgraded their roster, have gotten a lot younger and better. Boston, Orlando, Dallas, New York, Oklahoma along with Miami, are all serious threats to the Lakers’ throne as the league’s top team. The Lakers have the best closer in Bryant, the best coach in Phil Jackson and a rich tradition behind them.
However, at the end of the day, none of that matters to the Lakers’ opponents, who come out with their best ball when they entertain the champs. Age, possible complacency and lack of effort can make any team look bad. The Lakers have the heart of a champion, and no doubt will make a push deep into the postseason when it’s all said and done.
But winning it all is no guarantee. It is not a given the Lakers are going to win the NBA title again this year. It’s not a given the Lakers will even make it to the NBA Finals again to give Bryant a shot at winning his sixth championship, which would tie him with hoops icon Michael Jordan.
And by the way they have been playing lately…that is a real possibility.