Lakers forward Metta World Peace gets set on defense against Heat forward… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Lakers fans groaned whenever he shot the ball. The media picked apart his fading offense, his decreasingly effective defense.
Metta World Peace didn't care. He knew his defense would eventually return, as it did Sunday against the Miami Heat.
World Peace helped hold LeBron James to 25 points on 12-for-26 shooting, turning the All-Star forward into an off-balance shooter a number of times in the Lakers' 93-83 victory.
"I'm going to answer this as honest as I can," World Peace said, "but I'm one of the best defensive players ever."
He scored 17 points Sunday, his best burst since scoring 19 against Sacramento in the second game of the season.
He credited his improved play to recovery from a nerve injury near his Achilles' tendon in his left leg.
"I could have easily gave up on myself and just deferred, but that's not my character. I've got to keep going," he said. "As I was feeling good, I was still reading people's comments and still hearing from fans that they think I'd lost a step. But I was just patient. I'm happy I'm able to play again."
Miami wasn't so excited.
"He's just starting to get his legs under him," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "The 30-plus crowd, it took a little while for us to adjust to this lockout season, but he had some big plays for them [Sunday], especially in the second half when we were trying to climb back in the game."
World Peace, 32, entered Sunday averaging 5.3 points and shooting 24.4% from three-point range.
He was an impact player from the beginning, scoring on a dunk off a James turnover and drawing a foul on James while posting up.
He spun around Dwyane Wade for a deft left-handed finger roll in the second quarter.
He blew kisses to the crowd after a three-pointer in the third quarter. Then he forced James into a tough three-point shot, slipped behind the Miami defense and scored on a pass from Steve Blake.
In the fourth quarter, World Peace stole the ball from Norris Cole and later patiently drilled a 15-foot turnaround. He followed it up by blocking Juwan Howard's shot, which led to two reactions. He thumped the left side of his chest and kissed one of his biceps.
"He's been playing better and better, and it's showed with the wins that we've had," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. "He came in this season overweight and out of shape. You wish that a guy could take a pill and get right back in shape like that, but it took him some time."
Courtside ticket holders are getting better views of Lakers games because Brown has settled down.
He was a human popcorn machine earlier this season, often flying off the bench while eagerly trying to coach his new system with his new team.
He's still more animated than his predecessor but he's "loosening his grip a little," Kobe Bryant said.
"It's easy for Phil Jackson, but it's hard for anybody in this situation to do that, so it takes a lot of trust on his part. He did it on his own. Sometimes the best coaching job to do is to kind of take your hands off a little bit."
By his own admission, Brown ran practices and shoot-arounds a little long when the season started. He asked players to go through steps on offense again and again.
These days? Not as much.
"I just got to a point where I said, 'Hey, give me two ball reversals,' " Brown said.
His demeanor changed in games too.
"I trust everybody on the floor to go out and play their game," Brown said. "I think they feel it because I don't look as stressed on the sidelines as I did the first few games of the year."