It is easy to fall for the superficialities, the vanities, the silliness. That's why the NBA put Heat-Lakers on the Christmas-Day marquee Sunday afternoon while two dry champions - Detroit and San Antonio - had to settle for the national undercard. It was like watching U2 open for Jennifer Lopez.
But glitter and glitz blind, and the rock-star Miami Heat have wrapped an awful lot of that around some pretty mediocre music. That's why everyone from Donald Trump to Trick Daddy to A-Rod was in attendance Sunday to watch Miami's gasping 97-92 victory against the Los Angeles Kobes.
Miami had to cover its eyes and pray that Lamar Odom missed a late three-pointer so wide open that the crowd gasped because there wasn't a defender within two zip codes. Odom clanked it, a holiday gift.
Toronto has one home win this season - against Miami. Detroit beat Toronto by 33. Miami lost at home to Denver while Carmelo Anthony had 41. Detroit beat Denver, 114-89, holding Anthony to 12. Even with Shaquille O'Neal back, Miami barely squeezed by a Bulls team Detroit strangled by 28.
Pat Riley's vision looks blurred today, even in victory. This season isn't supposed to be about needing a late fury to fend off the mediocre likes of the Kobes at home. Injuries or no injuries, 16-12 Miami ought not have a worse record today than teams like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Memphis and (gasp!) the Clippers. Outside of maybe the season-opener at Memphis, Miami doesn't have a single impressive triumph on its resume yet.
Gary Payton's team-leading 21 points Sunday? If Miami was playing better, that could be a good sign. It could represent 22-3 Detroit's ability to get star numbers out of any of its five players. Instead, it stinks of desperation as Miami hobbles around looking about as lost as a winner ever can. Antoine Walker, for one, doesn't look like he's sure which sport he's supposed to be playing, careening face-first toward the basket like the overzealous, mouthpiece-wearing Jim Carrey in Cable Guy.
The optimist will say that this is exactly why the regular season is played - to make the parts fit. The cynic will respond that, no, what the regular season is for is to gouge the customer base with 82 irrelevant games. The good news is that Miami has more than 50 games to fix this. The bad news is that it has showed precious little proof so far that it will. A 16-12 record is about as bad as a team with this kind of talent can have given the way reserves Alonzo Mourning and Payton are playing.
All that said, Miami has the good fortune of likely being a No. 2 playoff seed even if it keeps playing this way because its division and the Atlantic Division are so dreadful. But Riley didn't turn over his roster to be a mere No. 2 seed. He did it to be clearly better than the Pistons and San Antonio. And right now Detroit and San Antonio look better than they were last season while Miami looks worse. The important part of that last sentence is "right now." Miami was better than Detroit at this point last season, and we all saw how that worked out.
Kobe Bryant did what he does Sunday. He led the universe in ballhoggedness. He shot 812 times. He stuck a knife in the back of Odom on one play and pried the basketball from his cold, dead fingers. He shook Smush Parker by the ankles until the ball came loose. He didn't make a single three-pointer despite attempting 356 of them.
Bryant caught Dwyane Wade in the face with an elbow that Riley claimed was on purpose. Wade and Bryant don't appear to like each other much, given that Wade is rarely engaged in verbal warfare, but he has gotten into it twice now with Bryant. Wade, frustrated about making only nine of his last 35 shots, elbowed Mamba back, heightening intensities in a game during which Payton - by consensus the best trash-talker in league history - unleashed his own special brand of holiday bile.
"Extremely disrespectful," Odom called Payton afterward.
Shaquille O'Neal, meanwhile, doesn't have his legs yet. That is obvious with the billiard balls he keeps clanking at the rim without lift. O'Neal gave no credit to the Lakers, saying, "It wasn't them; it was me. It's never them; it's always me."
There is plenty of time for O'Neal and his teammates to get this season righted, of course, but Miami too often looks like its largest player: Enormous, imposing and flourescently famous.
But still laboring to get off the ground.