LOS ANGELES – Dwyane Wade sat on the bench with a towel draped over his head and his Miami Heat jersey no longer tucked into his shorts. He'd just fouled out of the game with more than five minutes still remaining, and now he was watching Kobe Bryant extend the Los Angeles' lead with a 20-foot jump shot.
A week earlier, Wade had broken Bryant's nose and given him a concussion in the NBA's All-Star game. Now, Bryant was getting his form of payback, scoring 33 points in an eventual 93-83 victory over the Heat that suddenly has the Lakers thinking they still deserve to stand among Wade, LeBron James and the rest of the league's elite teams.
"It's just understanding what our strengths are and playing to that," Bryant said. "The real testament for any championship team is knowing what your weaknesses are and cover those, protect those, stay with what your strengths are in that department."
The Lakers have won eight of their past 10 games, including all three since the All-Star break, despite Bryant still feeling the affects of Wade's foul. In addition to playing with a mask to protect his nose, Bryant also has been bothered by loud noises since he was injured – an unfortunate problem given the fact that he works in loud arenas. After the victory over the Heat, he squinted while answering reporters' questions because of the bright lights in the interview room.
Wade sent Bryant an apologetic text message after the All-Star game, and Bryant said, "We put it behind us and moved on to this game."
"I've always been a big supporter of his," Bryant said of Wade. "Always will be. He has a great competitive spirit to him."
The Lakers didn't look to give Wade a hard foul to send a message. Pau Gasol said the Lakers only wanted to play physical, not seek retribution. Bryant did enjoy seeing Gasol stand up to James after James bumped Troy Murphy.
Bryant said there's no room for retaliation in the NBA.
"Baseball, it's part of their sport. It's kind of what they do," Bryant said. "It's part of their culture. It's not part of ours."
Bryant did set the tone for the Lakers by scoring 18 points in the first quarter. L.A. led by as many as 16 before fighting off the Heat in the final quarter.
"He came out very aggressive from the start, and he was able to get some shots early on to get him in rhythm," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You could see that his mindset was to be aggressive in the second half."
Bryant has averaged 34 points in the three games he's worn the mask. He isn't sure how much longer he'll continue wearing it after taking a couple shots to the face against the Heat.
"If I can walk, if I can run, I can play," Bryant said.
Wade, meanwhile, didn't have one of his better games. He missed 10 of his 17 shots and finished with 16 points. He was bothered by a headache in the third quarter after being hit in the head a couple times and he drew two offensive fouls in the final quarter. With Chris Bosh missing his third straight game after the death of his grandmother, Wade's early exit was too much for the Heat to overcome.
"It's very rare, I don't foul out much," Wade said. "I guess I had the red flag on me today. It was unfortunate. I would love to be in there with my teammates and I wasn't able to.
"[New Lakers coach] Mike Brown has made them a better defensive team. I didn't get into my rhythm like I wanted to. They had a lot of intensity on pick-and-rolls, which is different for them. You could see the Mike Brown factor."
The Lakers are still adjusting to Brown, who said he thinks his players are about 70-75 percent up to speed. More than anything, Bryant said, the Lakers have learned they are a dangerous low-post team when playing to the strengths of Gasol and center Andrew Bynum.
The team is still trying to overcome the loss of Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown and it appears doubtful Los Angeles will make a major trade for Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. But with their $8.9 million trade exception from the Odom deal, they could add a point guard. The Cleveland Cavaliers' Ramon Sessions, Utah Jazz's Devin Harris and Portland Trail Blazers' Raymond Felton are potential targets.
Bryant was asked if the Lakers can contend for a championship with their current roster.
"We believe so," he said. "Management is going to do their job and it's out of our control. We have to just focus on what we got."
The Lakers have a lot of competition in the Western Conference from the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, reigning champion Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers – they've moved into a virtual tie with the Clippers for third in the West, and Bryant believes the best is yet to come.
With plenty of room to improve and maybe a player or two to add, Bryant and Co. are aiming for their eighth NBA Finals appearance – and a possible showdown with Wade and James.
"It's fun to compete against the best," Bryant said.
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