LOS ANGELES -- Lakers forward Matt Barnes said beforehand that whichever team won Saturday's showdown at the Staples Center, "people would make speculation like the winner could win the Finals and all kinds of crazy stuff.''
It doesn't seem too crazy after what Miami did to the Lakers in a Christmas crushing.
Just a month ago, the Heat looked like dead meat. Miami was 9-8 and perhaps American Airlines Arena officials were looking for a circus or The Ice Capades to fill arena dates in June.
Hold off on those calls. After Saturday's 96-80 wipeout of the Lakers, the hype surrounding the Heat suddenly looks a lot more real even if nobody on the team wants to admit it.
"You get whiplash if you follow you guys and your opinions from game to game,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "So we're not concerned what you guys are commenting on and writing about.''
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The Heat have won 14 of 15 games since their lackluster start, but it's the way Miami is winning that is throwing fear into the rest of the NBA. Everybody knew the Heat would have plenty of scoring with the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but it's defense that's doing it.
The Heat (23-9) held the two-time defending champions to 40.8 percent shooting and to just 14 points in the first quarter (Miami had 20). Lakers stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol started a combined 0-of-11 from the field. Gasol, who began 0-of-7 and finished 8-of-17 for 17 points, eventually got it going a bit but Bryant, who started 0-of-4 and finished 6-of-16 for 17 points, never did.
"The concept of Miami Heat basketball is all about, first of all, defense,'' Wade said. "It's five guys all being on one string at one time together. And that's what we did (Saturday).''
As for the Lakers (21-9), the flag they want to hoist proclaiming a third straight straight title has some seriously tangled string. Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Bryant both expressed serious displeasure after the loss. It sounded as if Bryant was looking for some string to hang some teammates.
"I'm going to kick some (butt) in practice,'' he vowed about Monday.
Speaking of that part of the body, one wonders what Bryant might say to Lakers forward Ron Artest. The so-called defensive specialist got two early fouls and wasn't much of a factor in trying to slow down James, and then claimed it wasn't an embarrassing loss.
"The only people that should be embarrassed is a little orangutan if the butt is out. I'd be embarrassed if my butt cheeks were out,'' said Artest, who played 21 minutes while his counterpart at small forward was dominant.
Well, let's quickly move on to James. He had a triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in 38 minutes.
It marked just the seventh triple-double on Christmas in NBA history and the last since Billy Cunningham did it for Philadelphia in 1970. Others in that group are Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, who accomplished it four times, and Boston's John Havlicek.
"It's humbling to know the history of the game and to see that stat,'' James said. "It's humbling. I think the best part about is I was able to do those things that resulted in us getting a win in a hostile building.''
It got really hostile on the court with 10.7 seconds left in the first half when Artest grappled with James in the lane and pulled his headband off. Both players got technicals, a bit of sting for the King.
"I was in the WWE. Headlock,'' James said. "And I was just trying to get out of it, and I got a technical for trying to get out of a headlock ... A headlock? I didn't expect that but I knew (Artest) was going to be physical.''
Artest called it simply a case of "two players with passion.'' If we want to really talk about passion, though, consider Miami's defense.
During the past 15 games, the Heat have not allowed a single foe to score more than 98 points. Miami has held teams in eight of those games to 84 or less.
"We understand that offensively we have enough pieces,'' James said. "We have three guys that can actually go on and self-will a win if need be. At the end of the game, what was going to be our identity, we knew defensively the five guys that's on the court have to be on a string.''
There's that string reference again. Maybe Heat officials need to have their players pose with violins and violas. You know, string instruments.
The Lakers have been playing a more sour tune lately on defense. They lost last Tuesday at home to Milwaukee, a game in which 5-foot-5 Earl Boykins peeled off cobwebs and scored a game-high 22 points. And then came Saturday, when Miami also got 24 points (and 13 rebounds) from Bosh and 18 from Wade.
But Lakers guard Derek Fisher didn't seem too concerned about Miami's titanic trio combining for 69 points. He lauded how the Heat played defense.
"Defensively is really where they're making it difficult for people,'' Fisher said. "Every NBA team is going to have two or three guys who score 18 to 20 points in a game. ... But the teams that separate themselves are the ones that defensively separate themselves from everybody else. They're at the top of the league right now.''
So there you have it from a guy who knows a bit about victory parades. While Fisher, with his five title rings, didn't exactly anoint the Heat as title favorites, he let it be known this is a team the Lakers must be worried about.
Speculating that Miami could be hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June doesn't sound that crazy after its Christmas cruising.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson