Records: Lakers 21-8 (Third in West) Heat 22-9 (Second in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.2 (Third in NBA) Heat 108.8 (Fourth in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (Tenth in NBA) Heat 97.3 (Second in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Heat: Carlos Arroyo, Dwyane Wade (or Mario Chalmers), LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Heat: Dwyane Wade (Day-To-Day, knee)
When the NBA released its schedule, this matchup was one fans immediately seeked, knowing the collective star-power between the two teams would be too much to surpass. Today, we’re finally in store for the marquee matchup between the two-time defending NBA Champions against the newest super group — The Miami Heat. The Kobe Bryant/Dwyane Wade matchup has always been an intriguing dynamic for fans of the game, so naturally, the additions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to the Heat made anticipation for the Lakers/Heat first meeting of the 2010/2011 season increase exponentially.
The Heat, coming in, seem to be in the process of finding their collective identity, winners of 13 of their previous 14 games, with their sole loss coming against an equally hot Dallas Mavericks team by two points. On the flip side of this matchup, we have the Lakers, who have struggled as of late, getting blown out at home against the Milwaukee Bucks after winning five straight on the road. Just a few weeks ago, the storylines of these two franchises were flipped, the Lakers were looking as if they were poised to outscore everyone who stepped foot on the hardwood while the Miami struggled to a 9-8 record through their first 17 games. At that point, anticipating the Heat’s dramatic turnaround and the Lakers propensity to struggle with sub-0.500 teams would have been awfully tough. But this is where we stand; two star-studded teams, facing off on an NBA tradition of marquee matchups on Christmas day.
Taking a look back at some of Miami’s recent games, there are a few keys the Lakers need to keep in mind if they’re going to be successful this afternoon.
The Heat on Offense:
One of the biggest problems for the Heat, and on some nights, their only problem, is their inability to consistently execute in half court sets. A lot of this problem can be attributed to Miami being a completely different team from what they were just eight months ago, and the rest of it can be attributed to the fact that both LeBron and Wade have been ball-dominant offensive players, not having to play many minutes off of the ball since they’ve entered the league. Until both guys are comfortable playing off of the ball, there will be long stretches of Heat offense where we see shots off of one pass, or unintentional isolations plays because no one moves. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing as LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh are all fantastic in one-on-one situations, but it does get them in a lot of trouble when they’re playing against teams that don’t turn the ball over. Earlier this week, Darius e-mailed me, expressing the same concerns for Miami’s half court offense:
When this team has to play strictly half court sets, they get bogged down more easily (though that’s been improving too) because they end up running monotonous P&R’s where either Wade or James are relegated to weak side spot up options where their men can become helpers without getting burned by it. The Heat have been trying to counter this more with baseline cuts by Wade and Lebron when the high P&R is being run and that’s been effective, but they don’t do it enough that it’s a staple of their sets. Suffice to say, if you can keep this team in the half court and make anyone but James Jones and Mike Miller (and Eddie House) spot up shooters, you’ve got a good chance of watching their O struggle.
Let’s take a look at some game film in their loss against Dallas. In this first clip, we have a Chris Bosh isolation on Tyson Chandler. The play begins with a double screen from LeBron and Wade across the lane to the right block with Carlos Arroyo handling the ball on the right wing. After Arroyo makes the entry pass, he cuts through the lane with Wade spotting up at the top of the key, LeBron spotting up on the left wing and Ilgauskas on the left block. After Arroyo clears to the left corner, the offensive movement is finished, with Chris Bosh taking a contested, fall away jumper in the paint over a 7-foot Tyson Chandler with three other Mavericks in the paint. Bosh knocked down the shot, but a defense can live with that.
This second clip shows Miami running a set with a double high screen with the big who he takes the screen from popping up top (Bosh) and the weak side big rolling to the basket (Ilgauskas) with Wade handling the ball. After taking Bosh’s screen Wade goes toward the basket, get directed to go down the baseline to the left corner, where he takes five non-productive dribbles while the rest of the team and all five Maverick defenders stand around watching him. The defense doesn’t have to rotate from one side of the floor to the other until the shot clock is down to eight seconds left after a skip pass goes to Carlos Arroyo on the right wing. He ends up getting run off of the three pointer by Jason Kidd and turning the ball over.
What the Lakers are going to have to do against this Miami team is make them run as much offense as possible in the half court, and while in the half court, make them jump shooters. The Lakers team makeup is not far from what Dallas’ is in regards to size. With at least two of the Lakers’ bigs in at all times (Pau, LO, ‘Drew, or — if he gets the opportunity to see the floor — Joe Smith) and the Lakers trio of good individual perimeter defenders (Artest, Kobe, Barnes), the Lakers have the right group of guys who can keep LeBron and Dwyane out of the lane, keeping their field goal attempts outside of the paint. Like Darius said, if you can make this team jump shooters, hand have the right guys taking the shots, this offense will struggle. However, as the cliché says, it’s much easier said than done.
The Heat on Defense:
One of the biggest reasons for the Heat’s turnaround is their perimeter defense, which is ostensibly, this team’s biggest strength. In the NBA, it is rare to see a team so collectively aggressive defensively on the perimeter, and the way the Heat play on that end of the floor really has a college feel to it. Both LeBron and Dwyane Wade are fantastic perimeter defenders, but Mario Chalmers can also hold his own with a lot of good perimeter scorers. They pick up men high, and create a lot of pressure, covering up what they lack defensively in the front court. And of course, their ability to create turnovers up top plays to their greatest offensive advantage — an open court. Both Wade and James are nearly unstoppable on the break, and creating turnovers and bad shots on the defensive end is exactly how they get things going. Darius has seen a lot of the same things from this Heat team:
The Heat’s perimeter defense is just tremendous. With Lebron and Wade both on the wings, they always seem to be able to help in the paint and then recover back to shooters to ensure that three point shots are contested or that shooters are ran off the line completely. This is one of the reasons that their defensive efficiency is so strong and why their interior defense doesn’t suffer. When looking at hoopdata, they actually give up the third lowest number of shots up at the rim and have the best FG% against at the rim in the league. That’s not because of Bosh, Joel Anthony, and Big Z. It’s because their wings help defend the paint expertly when the ball gets down there and because their wing defense is so strong that they don’t give up the driving lanes that lead to shots at the rim like most teams do.
One more thing about the Heat on defense is that they don’t throw a lot of double teams at guys. Darius mentioned that both James and Wade are brilliant help-side defenders, and they use their help as a faux double-team. There have been a plethora of instances where, instead of sending a double team, either James or Wade have baited entry passes playing from the weak side and come down the lane to strip a big or have been in position to make a layup preventing block. Without James and Wade, the Gasol-Odom-Bynum triumvirate would have a field day against this Miami front court, but with James and Wade lurking, the number of easy buckets for the bigs might be reduced by the presence of great help side defense.
However, as we saw with the Lakers early in the season, that overly aggressive perimeter defense can come with a cost of being beat back door, something I saw even with bigs like Tyson Chandler and Dirk in the Dallas game. Considering this, I think Matt Barnes can have a huge game, as he moves as well as anyone in the league without the ball. If the Lakers can move the ball, and move without the ball, they can counter the Heat’s aggressiveness with easy buckets. We see offenses taking advantage of aggressive defenses in football all the time with screen passes and draw run plays. The same principles can be used on the hardwood with passes to the pinch post and back door cuts — as long as the offense continues to move. The Lakers have the right offense, and the right personnel to do these things, it’s just a matter of getting it done. The Lakers have the propensity, much like the Heat, to stand around and watch sometimes.
I have no doubt that the Lakers have all of the right tools to beat the Heat, it’s just a matter putting those tools to use. I think the winner of the first quarter wins this game. Whoever is able to execute their game plan earlier is going to have a huge leg up because the Heat is a team that goes on huge runs at a time, for long periods of time. No team in the NBA rides momentum within individual games better than the Heat. I look forward to an exciting Christmas Day game.
Lastly, I wanted to wish all of you (even the Celtics fans) a Merry Christmas from all of us here at Forum Blue and Gold. Enjoy the game, the holiday and the time with your families and let’s hope the Lakers get this win.