When the Heat set out on its six-game road trip, coach Erik Spoelstra laid out an agenda of things he wanted his team to accomplish. It took six-games, but everything came together against the Lakers.
“We talked about it from the very first day of this 10-day road trip,” Spoelstra said. “We wanted to accomplish a few things. We wanted to connect together as a group away from Miami; we wanted to build a road resolve and toughness to be able to find ways to win games when you’re not necessarily shooting the ball well.”
The Heat struggled mightily early in the road trip against Indiana and then again sputtered against Portland and Utah. Against the Lakers, the Heat’s shooting was off – it shot 2 of 13 from three-point range – but counterbalanced that inefficiency with a relentless defense that forced 20 turnovers.
In its final two games of the road trip, the Heat forced 41 turnovers for 55 points. That hustle and determination was crystallized in one play against Los Angeles.
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Spoelstra called James’ loose ball scramble with five minutes left in the game the most important play of the road trip.
Six cities, 10 days, a few icy locker rooms, records, milestones and it came down this: James diving headlong on the court for a loose ball.
He got to the long rebound before Kobe Bryant, found his feet, raced down the court and found Ray Allen, who hit arguably the biggest basket of the game.
In what felt like the most overhyped game ever between a legitimate title contender and a team that is ranked 11th in its conference and struggling just to the make the playoffs, the Heat defeated the Lakers 99-90 on Thursday at Staples Center.
Allen’s three-pointer, his first of the game, gave the Heat an 86-83 lead. From there, the Heat (26-12) outscored the Lakers (17-22) 13-7 to finish the game. James led the way with 39 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Of his diving play with five minutes left in the game, James only shrugged “we needed every possession.”
“Those long rebounds always result in them getting a kick-out three,” James said. “I just went on the floor, got up and was able to find Ray in transition.”
Allen, who uncharacteristically started the game 0 of 5 from the field and even airballed a three-point attempt in the second half, never hesitated. He was off early in the game, but Allen played well in crunch time. He scored seven points in the final period – all of which came in the final five minutes.
“I couldn’t find a great rhythm throughout the game,” Allen said. “I was trying to find somewhere where I had my feet planted and I almost knew he was coming to me and I was prepared for it.”
Allen’s nine-foot floater later gave the Heat a four-point lead with 1:30 to play. James extended the lead to 96-90 on the Heat’s next possession with a six-foot pull-up jumper.
James took the game over in the final five minutes. Not only did he switch off defensively to cover Bryant, but James either had an assist or scored a basket on six of the Heat’s final seven possessions.
“We were in attack mode,” James said. “It was good ball movement.”
Really, the Heat was in “attack mode” from the start. Miami had 13 steals in the first half, one more than the team’s previous high for the season.
All told, the Heat forced 20 turnovers, which translated to 23 points. Chris Bosh had five steals in the first half.
The Lakers forced six turnovers for just two points.
The overwhelming defensive pressure allowed the Heat to overcome a poor night shooting from the outside. The Heat was 2 of 13 from three-point range with Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Dwyane Wade and Norris combing to go 0 of 8 from distance.
“We never really got into a great flow offensively until late in the fourth quarter,” Spoelstra said. “You’ve got to give their defense credit. Dwight Howard protects the paint better than anyone in this league.”
Howard finished the game with 13 points and 16 rebounds but the Heat’s defensive tenacity allowed for points in the paint in transition. The Heat outscored the Lakers 68-28 in the paint despite being outscored 17-2 on second-chance points.
Bryant started the game terribly, missing 13 of his first 16 shots of the game, but found his form when it counted.
The Heat led 73-65 entering the fourth quarter but Bryant led the Lakers back scoring 13 points in the final. He was 5 of 9 from the field and 3 of 4 from three-point range.
After beginning its road trip 1-3, Miami won the final two games of the road trip. The Heat is 10-9 on the road this season and now will enjoy an unusual five-day break in the season before playing the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday at American- Airlines Arena.
“D-Wade, what you doing for your birthday?” James yelled across the locker room after the game.
“Flying all night,” Wade said.