On Tap: The Miami Heat

 —  December 25, 2004

Near the end of the Christmas Day game, I expect to hear Al Michaels utter this sentence:

“Our Chevrolet player of the game is Dwyane Wade, who opened a lot of eyes with his 38-point performance today.”

Shaq is going to have some 5.0 on the Richter Scale dunks. Kobe is going to make moves and hit shots where you can’t help but think of MJ. But if you’ve been following the Lakers all season, you know that penetrating point guards rip them apart, and that — or the Lakers sudden ability to defense it — will be the difference.

Right now, there is no better penetrating point guard in the league than Wade. His PER is 25.7 (better than Kobe’s 23.8). More impressively, there’s this stat from 82games.com: Only 52% of Wade’s shots are jump shots — that means 48% of the time he shoots he has driven past everyone for a layup or dunk. For comparison, 72% of Kobe’s shots this season have been jump shots. Wade’s quickness is unbelievable.

Chucky Atkins can’t cover Wade (unless the Lakers want to watch him to put up Wilt Chamberlain against the Knicks numbers), so expect Kobe to cover him for long stretches. Kobe has an impressive oPER of 12.0, but quick guards still give him some problems. Now, if I were Stan Van Gundy (and I thank God daily that I am not), I’d have Wade penetrate right at Kobe and try to draw a couple of early fouls. I’d gladly sacrifice a couple of points to get Kobe in foul trouble. And if Kobe is on Wade, one of the other Jones on the Heat roster will have the chance to embarrass Chucky.

Wade benefits from what Kobe benefited from for the past eight years — Shaq’s mere presence forces defensive spacing, and when he has the ball a double team, creating space for slashing guards. Shaq and Wade’s chemistry also is why the Heat have won 10 in a row.

Shaq also is going to get his — the Lakers’ oPER against centers is 15.9. (It’s 16 against point guards.) The Lakers will throw Mihm, Grant, and probably some Cook, Slava and Jones at Shaq to absorb fouls. Ironically — because of all the times it was booed at Staples — the Lakers should go to hack-a-Shaq. Shaq leads the NBA in field goal percentage at 60.6%, but his free throw percentage is 45%. The math is easy — I just wish the Lakers still had Vlade healthy to give up even more fouls.

Kobe is also going to get his. Regular readers of this site know Kobe leads the Lakers not only in scoring but in assists as well — he is, for all intents and purposes, the point guard and the scoring guard. And he is motivated. Stats be damned, when Kobe is motivated he raises the level of his play. This should be his best game of the year.

That said, statistically the best place to attack the Heat is the three and the four, where the oPERs are 15.8 and 15.9, respectively. This is where the Lakers are going to miss Caron Butler and his ability to drive and hit open shots. The Lakers have no shortage of threes sitting on the bench — Jumaine Jones and Luke Walton should get quality minutes — but neither of them are as athletic as Butler. Jones is second on the team in Roland Rating, we’ll see if he can provide more than just a spark off the bench.

If the Lakers are going to win, Lamar Odom is going to have to come up with a huge game. We all know he has the talent, but two big questions linger: Will we see the aggressive or the “wait for the game to come to me” Odom? And will Kobe get him the ball is good positions or will Kobe dish it out and the Lakers continue their recent love affair with the three-point shot and ignore the paint?

Style wise, this is going to be a walk-it-up game between two teams that play pretty well in the half-court. Miami’s team eFG% is an impressive 51.7% and the Lakers are a solid 48.7%, and both teams play good defense.

Bottom Line: All they hype going into this game has been on the Shaq/Kobe meeting, and they’ll both get their points and make plays that will have their backers saying “I told you so.” But, in the end, unless the Lakers play the best defensive game of the season, Wade will be the difference.