When it was over, when the Lakers' heave-three-pointers-and-hope strategy failed Wednesday and the Miami Heat showed the heart of a champion and the hunger to win again, Kobe Bryant embraced LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, exchanging kind words and pats on the back in the true Christmas spirit.
The problem for the Lakers was that Bryant was in street clothes, a black jacket and pants and sparkly black sneakers. James and Wade were in uniform and in a state of contentment after their 101-95 victory over the Lakers.
"You have to make shots, you have to execute. We did a little of both," James said. "Down the stretch, that's what it comes down to."
BOX SCORE: Heat 101, Lakers 95
The Lakers executed in spurts, staying in contention on persistence and long-distance shooting until Miami's quality won out.
Bryant's absence because of his fractured left knee took a lot of the luster off this marquee matchup, but James, Wade and Chris Bosh did their part to entertain the crowd at Staples Center and a national TV audience.
James delivered an assortment of did-you-see-that dunks, including one with his left hand to give the Heat a 48-39 lead in the second quarter after Wade had put the ball off the glass. Magic Johnson, on his Twitter account, called Wade's lob to James "one of the greatest plays I've ever seen."
Wade had 23 points, his fifth straight game with 20 or more. Bosh, after starting 0 for 6, also had 23.
Given the Lakers' depleted state without Bryant or Steve Nash, the game figured to be a romp for the Heat. For Wade, prevailing was more important than the margin of victory.
"I'm not going to worry about it," he said, rubbing his thigh as ice packs cooled his knees. "We have 22 wins. That's all I care about.
"This is what we're used to. I don't know if people expect us to blow teams out. We don't really blow a lot of teams out from the start of the game. Sometimes it opens up as the third or fourth quarter go on. We know we're going to get teams' best shot. We just continue to work our game. It's about getting wins."
They've won six straight and eight of nine, all with the target of defending champion on their backs.
"It's never ever easy in this league, particularly when you play on the road," said Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra. "When you ask a coach before the game, you always have a pit in your stomach thinking it's going to be the most difficult game."
Knowing that the Heat was vulnerable in defending the perimeter — Miami ranked 21st in three-point defense entering the game — the Lakers hoisted 36 three-point attempts. Fourteen went in. That helped the Lakers (13-16) stay in the game while Pau Gasol was destroyed on defense and the team committed 17 turnovers.
The Heat and Lakers were even at 83-83 with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter after Nick Young hit a running jumper, but the Heat regrouped and continued to drive to the basket while piling up 58 points in the paint.
Wade said he wasn't surprised that the Lakers kept it close as long as they did.
"You've got Mike D'Antoni giving you the freedom to shoot any shot you want, when you want, how you want, guys can do special things," Wade said. "We knew we had to play four quarters and we did and got the win."
Spoelstra also anticipated a tough time against the Lakers.
"This team has been playing well. They've been grinding this year," he said. "You can't ever underestimate teams like that, that have been counted out because of all the injuries but have found a way to compete and win.
"That shows a grittiness, that you're going to have to earn it, and at times we were and at times we weren't. And you have to give them credit for that."
Young said coming close made him feel encouraged and discouraged at the same time. "We've still got to feel confident, playing against the champs, to stay in the game and compete how we did. We needed that," he said. "Hopefully this will carry on to…when do we play again, Friday?"
Yes, Friday. And until then, Young can enjoy the fact that he outscored James on Wednesday, 20-19. Young said he hadn't realized that, but he knew it didn't count for much in the big picture.
"He got the victory. They're the champs," Young said. "They know how to get the wins at the end of the day."
The Lakers don't, and that's not likely to change for a while.