Posted Dec 27 2010 5:19PM
LOS ANGELES -- The difference between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James at the end of the day is ultimately measured in rings. The problem with the Lakers, as diagnosed by an irritated and fed-up Bryant on Christmas Day, boils down to the same.
"We're playing like we have two rings," Kobe groused after Miami wiped the floor with the two-time defending champs in a dud of a holiday spectacular.
Lists are a treasured tradition this time of year, and Phil and Kobe and Pau and the rest of Purple and Gold Nation rolled through a roll call of issues threatening to railroad the quest for three. The Kings appear stable in comparison after the parade of Lakers were done talking early Saturday evening.
The Heat, by contrast, might as well have returned to South Florida guided by reindeer. The cheer and good will towards men emanating from the Miami side lit the way home after a contest where the statements made had more to do with the state of each team than the actual matchup itself.
The Heat believe they're getting closer. Phil Jackson sounded like a coach expecting to lose.
"Disappointing finish to a game as hyped as that one was, but no surprise to us as a coaching staff," Zen Master espoused. "We're just not playing very good ball."
"Heat basketball" was the operative phrase for the winning outfit. Its main ingredients: trust, defense, help, movement, comfort. And then there's secret weapon Erick Dampier, as Dwyane Wade quipped after reminding everyone that Miami has won 14 of 15.
Winners can laugh and high-five, as the Heat did on the floor of the back-to-back champs when the lead stretched past 20 in the fourth quarter. Miami isn't without its concerns -- a losing record against winning teams is the stat most often brought up -- but blowing past the Lakers in the season's most-anticipated contest to date hides a lot of blemishes.
"We're happy because we got better today and we didn't take a step backwards," LeBron said after his triple-double, the first on Christmas in 40 years.
Kobe was downright Grinch-like, promising to kick some tail Monday at practice. Knocking the complacency out a squad that's clashing more than those green shoes worn Saturday is more than a one-practice job. Luckily, or maybe not, 52 games remain in the regular season for L.A.
Jackson understood Bryant's frustration, citing a team-wide lack of energy and confidence. Gasol is lollygagging out there, Phil added, and playing, as he alluded to time and again, soft. Andrew Bynum is still a beat or two slow in reaction time. What does Ron Artest do again?
Bryant simply sees a collection of frontrunners expecting to coast on the résumé of champions past. The attention to detail has waned, and not just in loss to Miami. The Lakers were routed on the same Staples floor earlier this week by Brandon Jennings-less Milwaukee. They own two wins over teams currently with winning records.
"This is serious stuff," Bryant said in full-on tough-guy mode. "You don't just have two rings and say, 'OK, we're satisfied with what we've got.' I'm not rolling with that. I'm not going to let that slide. We need to get into gear."
And perhaps more damning of all, Kobe called out his teammates' professionalism despite a 21-9 record.
"These games mean more to our opponents then they do to us," he continued. "We need to get that straight. We need to play with more focus, put more importance on these games. I don't like it."
Maybe the Lakers should hold a players-only meeting. The Heat took off after theirs, and Saturday illustrated again the mantra heard since that 45-minute locker room summit in Dallas on Nov. 27. The SuperFriends are learning how to mesh. Chris Bosh has emerged from the LeBron and D-Wade shadow with Toronto-era aggressiveness. The supporting cast, especially the platoons at center and point guard, continues to grow into their roles.
Kobe and the Lakers had their own growing pains a few years back and we all know what they became. Bryant tried the solo act post-Shaq only to find collaborations much more satisfying and rewarding come June. One man can only do so much, as Kobe's repeated with exasperated tones in just about every answer he gave.
Ultimately, LeBron took his talents to South Beach so he wouldn't have to be the only one. He wanted what Kobe has and what those 1980s title contenders he looks back on with such fondness had. All-Star teammates. Potential Hall of Famers. Pat Riley.
LeBron and Kobe exchanged an extended and seemingly colorful collection of words deep in the fourth quarter after a Bryant offensive foul. The MVPs were each asked about it afterwards. James said it was simply two competitors getting after it. Kobe joked that he asked LeBron what he got for Christmas.
It wasn't a ring. Even so, James had reason to smile. Kobe isn't doing the same these days.
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