Bryant's second major injury of the season kept him out of Wednesday's game, a 101-95 loss in which the Lakers were competitive until the final 8 1/2 minutes.
''We're not better than we were last year, but it's only December,'' said James, who scored 19 points. ''I believe we can be better than the team that won in June. This is a process. We don't want to play championship ball right now.''
Chris Bosh and Wade led Miami with 23 points apiece. Bosh had 11 rebounds and Ray Allen made four 3-pointers for 12 points for the defending NBA champions.
''You have to make shots, you have to execute,'' James said. ''We did a little bit of both.''
The teams meet again in Miami on Jan. 23. Bryant isn't expected to play then either. He's out four to six weeks because of his knee.
Before his latest injury, Bryant missed nearly eight months while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. He played his first game on Dec. 8, then got hurt again on Dec. 17 at Memphis.
''It's just been slow in terms of laying off it and letting it heal,'' Bryant said before the game. ''When you don't have activity, you got to watch the other parts like nutrition.''
Typical of Bryant's attention to detail, he said he has been reading critical comments that suggest he won't return this season.
''It's the same old tune, just being sung a little more loudly now,'' he said. ''These type of things just help me lock in more.''
Asked if there's any chance he won't be back, Bryant replied, ''Not that I'm aware of.''
James said, ''When he comes back he's going to play at a high level.''
The injury left Bryant unable to extend his NBA record for Christmas Day appearances to 16.
''It's not as special when Kobe's not out there,'' said James, who shared a postgame hug with Bryant.
Streaky reserve Nick Young scored 20 points for the Lakers, who were tied four times in the fourth quarter. Jodie Meeks added 17 points, Xavier Henry had 14 and Pau Gasol added 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Miami shot 51 percent from the field while improving to 7-0 against the Western Conference this season. It was its 19th straight win overall against West opponents.
Bosh scored 13 of his 23 points in the first half, when Miami trailed 27-21 after the first quarter.
''I just made an effort to get to the basket a little more,'' he said. ''We just kept wearing on them offensively. They made some tough shots.''
Los Angeles shot 42 percent in its third straight loss. The Lakers were 14 of 36 from 3-point range as they tried to go over the top to beat the Heat's rugged interior.
''Teams will try to get us moving and play out of our rotations,'' Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. ''Early on they were getting some wide-open ones. Some of those Nick Young hit were tough.''
Jordan Farmar returned from a left hamstring tear after missing 10 games, giving the Lakers a true point guard to run the offense. But he was ineffective, with three points and two assists in 32 minutes.
''I hadn't even played 5-on-5 since I got hurt, so this is the first time I've actually played basketball,'' he said. ''Health-wise, everything stayed intact and I felt good out there, so it's progress.''
The Lakers played a competitive game against the loaded Heat despite their poor shooting and the absence of Bryant, Steve Nash (nerve root irritation) and Steve Blake (right elbow). They led by 10 points and never trailed by more than that.
''I thought we attacked them the way we wanted to,'' Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. ''We can step it up a bit and be a little bit tougher, especially on the boards and places like that. Those things are irritating, but the effort is good.''
Young's basket tied the game for the last time at 83-all. The Heat promptly took off on a 13-5 run. Wade, Norris Cole and James scored all of the Heat's points.
Young answered with his fourth 3-pointer of the game and Meeks made 1 of 2 free throws to pull the Lakers to 96-92 with 1:26 to play. But Wade had an acrobatic reverse layup and James made two foul shots to give Miami some breathing room.
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- Miami Heat
- Kobe Bryant
- LeBron James
- Dwyane Wade