There was this fascinating scene at the end of the first half that spoke of the larger night and, beyond that, to the season the Heat wants to play out. LeBron James was guarded by Kobe Bryant, just as you’d want, as the night asked.
Bryant recently said only Chris Paul and Derrick Rose were clutch players in his mold. That’s not the stage LeBron wants a debate to be on just now. Kobe has a career portfolio for winning big moments. LeBron is defined by his Dallas disappearance until the next Finals.
But here, at the top of the key, LeBron had the stage to make a statement, one-on-one. You sensed he wanted to as well. A moment earlier, James hit a 3-point shot over Kobe. That was one message.
Now, as he dribbled into the lane and Kobe stayed with him, as he went in the air and Kobe stayed close, as the Lakers’ defense collapsed toward him, LeBron sent the message of how he’s different.
He zipped the ball to an open Shane Battier in the corner. Then, not waiting for the shot, LeBron began walking back on defense. He didn’t look at the shot. He simply raised three fingers in the air.
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Kobe, now 33, might be the better one-man show, the proven champ, the player still more likely to rip out your team’s heart if given the chance.
But the more complete player? On the more complete team? Are you allowed to extend one January night’s 98-87 win by the Heat to complete such ideas?
Battier stood there, so wide open in the manner guys who play with LeBron or Kobe are. But LeBron passes the ball. He’s as happy with an assist as a score himself, as he’s often said.
That was one of LeBron’s eight assists in a game, his entire tool box on display. On one of his three blocks, he sprinted down the court to swat Matt Barnes’ breakaway lay-up.
On one of his four steals, he had a runaway dunk.
Just before half, he even chased down a ball and collided into Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who was seated courtside. Loria was knocked back in his seat. LeBron grabbed him.
“Who is that?” he said when asked in the TNT halftime interview if he knew the man.
Marlins President David Samson, quick of wit, turned to Loria after the collision and said, “Hope you don’t get the flu.”
Yes, LeBron was sick enough to miss the morning shootaround and have his availability be in doubt. But his numbers told the night’s main story: 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
The subplots were interesting. The Heat went to 5-0 without the injured Dwyane Wade. Battier held Kobe to an 0-for-5 start, showing the kind of defense he brings on stars.
Center Eddy Curry made his first appearance in more than two years and finished with six points, bolstering the idea of his being a playoff factor.
LeBron held the spotlight, though. He can’t answer the big question until June. But this was the kind of regular-season milepost, mano-a-mano with Kobe, that bore watching.
He even went down into the post several times in the first half. Once, he spun on Kobe, getting a free look at the basket until the Lakers’ inside defense smothered him. He missed a reverse lay-in, tapped the ball to a teammate. The Heat scored that possession.
Mike Brown, the Lakers’ coach, competed against LeBron for the first time after their run in Cleveland. He dispelled the thought LeBron never played the post in Cleveland. He was put there and was effective at drawing the double-team, Brown said.
But he was better at running the offense at the top, Brown said.
“Maybe because we didn’t have Bosh and Wade our offense was considered ugly,” he said.
It wasn’t ugly Thursday. Nothing about his game was. Three fingers in the air, and in Kobe’s face, after one telling play said as much.