And then LeBron James calmly demonstrated why the Heat are the defending NBA champions and the Lakers are in 11th place in the Western Conference.
James had 39 points and eight assists, Dwyane Wade added 27 points on his 31st birthday and the Heat held off the Lakers 99-90 Thursday night, scoring the final nine points to finish their six-game road trip in style.
"We closed out the trip the right way, and we want to build from it," James said. "We wanted to do much better, of course, after the way we started, losing to Indiana and Portland."
They finished up just fine at Staples Center, getting their second win in their last eight games here against the Lakers.
Ray Allen scored seven of his nine points in the final 5 minutes as the Heat repelled a late charge by the Lakers, who lost for the seventh time in nine games. The Lakers challenged the champs, but James closed out the Heat's sixth road game in 10 days with a flurry of clutch baskets and solid defensive play, often against Bryant.
"I thought we played well enough to beat them," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That's a championship team. They turned on all the juices, so it's a good measuring stick. That's what they do, and we have to get better. We've got to get smoother."
Bryant scored 13 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter for Los Angeles, but later lamented his lack of aggression in the first three quarters. Dwight Howard had 13 points and 16 rebounds, but missed two key free throws with 1:51 left while Miami pulled away, capping the All-Star starting centre's 5-for-13 effort at the line.
Miami held a narrow lead for most of the first three quarters until Bryant hit two 3-pointers and two jumpers during a 14-3 Lakers run to an 84-81 lead in the fourth quarter.
Allen put the Heat back ahead with a 3-pointer with 4:55 to play, but Bryant tied it with his third 3-pointer of the quarter with 2:33 left. After Wade hit a jumper, Howard missed two free throws — airballing the first — and Allen hit a high-arching jumper in the paint before James iced it with a short bank shot with 49 seconds left.
"On the road, when things don't always go your way, you don't have your momentum and you don't have the confidence of your home crowd, you have to just find different ways to grind," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "This is a perfect example of that. We never really got into a great flow offensively until late in the fourth quarter."
Metta World Peace scored 16 points for the Lakers, who committed 20 turnovers and didn't score in the final 2 1/2 minutes. Yet they largely saw a solid effort against the mighty Heat is cause for optimism in Hollywood.
"It's not much of a setback," Bryant said. "They played very well. They obviously have a familiarity, been playing together, and they know where they want to be in their spots. They executed down the stretch. LeBron made some tough shots."
Pau Gasol had 12 points and four rebounds in his return from a five-game absence with a concussion for the Lakers, who had hoped to build on consecutive victories following a six-game losing streak that knocked them well out of the West playoff picture.
James and Wade got little help until Allen's late flurry, but they didn't need it. Chris Bosh had just seven points and six rebounds in 35 minutes for Miami.
"LeBron is going to get his points, but if we control Dwyane and Chris Bosh, we have a better chance of winning," Howard said. "Tonight, D-Wade, he had it going on the offensive end."
Bryant scored at least 20 points in his 23rd consecutive game, but the NBA's leading scorer missed 14 of his first 17 shots.
The game featured four of the 10 starters in next month's All-Star game, with Bryant edging James by roughly 7,800 votes as the top vote-getter in the final results announced earlier in the day. Wade and Howard also will start in Houston.
Bryant is headed to his 15th All-Star game in 17 NBA seasons, starting a record 15 consecutive times, while Howard will be a seven-time All-Star.
Earl Clark stayed in the Lakers' starting lineup on his 25th birthday, but Gasol played well off the bench in his first game since Denver's JaVale McGee elbowed him in the face Jan. 6.
NOTES: The Lakers visit Miami on Feb. 10 in the final stop of their seven-game road trip while the Grammy Awards take over Staples Center. Los Angeles hasn't won at American Airlines Arena since Feb. 10, 2008. ... Bryant scored at least 20 points in 62 straight games from December 2005 to April 2006. ... Mark Wahlberg, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Queen Latifah, Ellen Pompeo, director Ron Howard and Los Angeles Kings players Dustin Penner, Drew Doughty and Trevor Lewis watched from courtside.Suggest a correction