The Lakers have rebuilt themselves into a championship-caliber team, while the Heat are faced with a long climb from the bottom of the standings.
“Four years ago they made a massive change in personality and dimension when they traded Shaquille,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “They took in a lot of young guys and they didn’t make the playoffs the first year. The next two years they were good and they lost in the first round to Phoenix—and now they’re here.”
The Lakers (41-17) maintained their one-game lead over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs for best record in the Western Conference, and lead Phoenix and New Orleans by two. Just 6 1/2 games separate the top nine teams in the West.
The double-digit winning streak is the 23rd in franchise history and 19th in Los Angeles—including an NBA-record 33-game run during the 1971-72 championship season, when Riley was playing for the Lakers.
“We’re really having a good time playing with one another. It makes the season that much more enjoyable,” Bryant said.
Riley and Lakers coach Phil Jackson have won a combined 14 NBA titles as head coaches, seven in Los Angeles. Riley is second in postseason wins, eight behind Jackson’s 179. But that gap could widen considerably come the spring.
“I think it’s a very mature team, from the standpoint of young players getting a lot of playing time and developing very quickly,” Riley said. “I think Phil has done a great job offensively with them, in terms of changing things, and they made the trade of all trades. Getting Pau Gasol puts them over the top.”
Gasol had 13 points and 11 rebounds. The 7-foot center is averaging 20.7 points and 7.7 rebounds since joining the Lakers in a trade from Memphis, and the Lakers are 11-1 with him. Gasol was one of four Lakers with 10 or more rebounds, the first time the team has done that since Nov. 9, 1989 at Golden State.
“At one time, you could probably defend them a little bit better. But now they’ve got a lot of weapons,” Riley added. “I’m really impressed by the play of those other guys, too: (Vladimir) Radmanovic, Luke (Walton), Farmar, (Sasha) Vujacic. I loved Ronny Turiaf in the draft, even though we didn’t draft him. Then when (Andrew) Bynum comes back, they’ll be even better. And, or course, they’ve got King Kobe. So that’s pretty good.”
The Heat, which ended an 11-game skid with a 107-86 win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, absorbed their 27th loss in 29 games. They are a league-worst 10-45 just two seasons after winning their first NBA title.
“We won a championship with that kind of game—being able to post up, being able to run some, pick-and-roll a ton and isolate the top of the lane a lot. And now, we don’t have that one dimension. So we’re going to have to play differently,” Riley said.
“When you have a dominant guy like Shaq, whose presence is like a magnet, I don’t care what kind of game you play. Eventually that guy’s got his hand under the basket and he just forces you to throw it into him. But we don’t have a post-up player, so you can’t slow it down.”
Dwyane Wade had 18 points for Miami after playing 13 scoreless minutes during a foul-plagued first half.
Bryant blocked an attempted layup by Shawn Marion in the final seconds of the third quarter, then turned toward the first-row seats across from the Lakers bench and wagged his index finger like Dikembe Mutombo.
Turiaf blocked two layups by Dorell Wright early in the fourth period, but was called for fouls both times. He got up again and swatted away an attempted layup by Marcus Banks, triggering a fast-break that resulted in a 3-pointer by Farmar that gave the Lakers an 81-64 lead with 9:06 to play.
Miami got as close as 95-86 on a four-point play by Wade, who was fouled by Bryant on a shot behind the arc and converted the free throw. But Lamar Odom helped seal it for the Lakers with a 21-footer and a 3-pointer in the final 1:25.
Riley’s Lakers faced Jackson’s Knicks for the NBA title three times in a four-year span during the early 1970s, with the Lakers beating New York in ’72 for their first championship in L.A., and the Knicks winning both of theirs at the Lakers’ expense. … Bryant needs 37 points to pass Walt Bellamy (20,941) for 25th place on the career scoring list.