Game against Heat is a wake-up call for Lakers


Finally, a game with a purpose, an opponent with a plot line.

In a Lakers season that has meandered and stalled since an 8-0 start, Saturday’s game against the Miami Heat brings plenty of hype and a shot of reality.

On their way to a somewhat deceiving 21-8 record, the Lakers have played five games against teams with winning records, going 2-3 without even facing Miami, Boston, Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Orlando, New Orleans, Atlanta or the improving New York Knicks.


It’s a mouthful, for sure, a long list of the NBA’s top teams, though the Lakers have a chance Saturday to show more than a passing interest in the rest of the regular season. They could use a spark, sitting a surprising four games behind San Antonio and 21/2 behind second-place Dallas in the Western Conference.

Forget their credentials as back-to-back champions. The Lakers have the fourth-best record in the league and not much to show other than a lot of victories against a soft schedule. The only teams over .500 they have defeated are Chicago (18-9) and Portland (15-14).

But here comes Miami and its 22-9 mark, not to mention a national TV audience and a holiday’s worth of built-in hype.

Seems like a good time for the Lakers to prove themselves, assuming they’re up for it, with one key player making a stand by not talking to the media. Guy by the name of Kobe Bryant.

He hasn’t spoken to reporters since offering a one-word answer after getting ejected from Tuesday’s embarrassing 98-79 loss to Milwaukee, telling The Times, for the record, “Nope” when asked if he wanted to comment after emerging from a side door near the Lakers’ locker room.

Media boycotts are nothing new for Bryant, who has given reporters the silent treatment from time to time during his 15-year career, this time apparently because he wants to send a message to teammates that he is taking the Heat very seriously. And maybe also because he’s simply embarrassed he lost his composure in the final minutes against the Bucks, who certainly don’t have a winning record (12-16).

There were, however, other Lakers willing to talk about the importance of beating Miami.

“It’s definitely going to be a statement game,” said Andrew Bynum, whose size might help the Lakers against the center-poor Heat, even though Bynum maintained he was still a few weeks from being in solid basketball shape. “We’ve got to go out here and play defense. We have to show everybody that we’re capable of defending.”

Said forward Ron Artest: “We’re losing to teams that we shouldn’t lose to. It’s a very important game for us.”

Artest hasn’t done much of anything on offense, averaging 7.6 points and shooting 39% this season, but he will have a chance to make an impact in the Lakers’ biggest game so far by matching up defensively against LeBron James, averaging 24.7 points and 7.1 assists while shooting 47.2% in his first season with the Heat.

“He’s done pretty well against me, but I’ve had some good nights against him,” Artest said. “I take pride in playing against the best, and he’s one of them.”

Miami isn’t much better than the Lakers against teams with winning records, going 5-7 this season, though the Heat has rebounded from an 8-7 start, its season a mirror image of the Lakers’.

Dwyane Wade and James are starting to figure out how to play on the same team, and the Heat has won 14 of its last 16.

“It took a little longer than everyone on the outside, and even us, expected it to,” Wade said. “It’s a beautiful thing when it works.”

Wade practiced Friday and is expected to play Saturday despite sitting out Miami’s victory over Phoenix on Thursday because of a sore knee.

Either way, Saturday’s game is a chance for the Lakers to start setting their season straight after unsettling patterns of behavior two months into it.

“We’re aware of the schedule that we’ve had and how we’ve done so far and how much harder it’s going to get from now on,” Pau Gasol said. “I think it’s exciting for all of us.”

The Decision

It’s been five months since James officially announced he was leaving Cleveland for Miami, but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was still shaking his head about the move.

“My thoughts after that are what Michael Jordan and some of the other guys would say, that they would never have done something like that,” Jackson said. “They would have anticipated their team would have built up the talent so that they could get back to the championship. But that’s his choice and we’ll all live with it.”

Sorry, Spoelstra

Jackson said last month that Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra might be replaced by Pat Riley if the Heat continued to sputter.

He joked about it when reminded of those comments Friday.

“I think he’s going to be the coach of the year,” Jackson deadpanned.

Then he became serious.

“They really got the spark back,” he said. “They really can pick it up when they’re challenged.”