Records: Lakers 10-5 (5th in West), Heat 9-4 (5th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 101.9 (18th in NBA), Heat 107.7 (4th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 97.6 (5th in NBA), Heat 99.6 (7th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Heat: Mario Chalmers, James Jones, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake & Derrick Caracter (both out); Heat: Dwyane Wade (questionable), LeBron James (game time decision)
The Lakers Coming in: How much good will rest some rest do? We should find out tonight as the Lakers got their first consecutive days off of the season on Tuesday and Wednesday. And while some of that time was used for travel, the team could practice, get in some uninterrupted treatment on nagging bumps and bruises (like Pau’s shoulder or Kobe’s wrist – which is more than a bump or bruise), and generally rest some weary legs. No one had played more games than the Lakers to this point in the season and for a team that’s relied pretty heavily on veteran players (especially Kobe and Pau who are logging heavy minutes), getting some time to recuperate can only help. If they spent some of that time off getting more familiar with how to attack on offense, even bettter.
The Heat Coming in: The Heat have lost 3 of 4 with their latest game (a home win over the Spurs) breaking their 3 game skid of road losses. They’re a bit banged up as Wade is unlikely to play due to an ankle/foot problem but his absence hasn’t really been felt as the team has found plenty of wing production from their crop of reserves. This team is still a work in progress however, as they adjust to new parts and an old face that is working his way back into the lineup.
Shane Battier was added during the off-season for his veteran savvy, defense, and outside shooting. Rookie Norris Cole (a player I had interest in this past draft as a potential Laker) has stepped into Miami’s lineup as their back up point guard, bringing speed and confidence where last year’s 2nd PG (Mike Bibby) had little of either. And then there’s Mike Miller who returned to the lineup in the aforementioned win over the Spurs by hitting all six of his three pointers to the tune of 18 points. Integrating these three players into the lineup (while also dealing with injuries) has meant that the Heat haven’t quite hit their stride as a team (9-4 is nothing to scoff at, but that’s still only good for 5th in the East as of today) but they’re showing their potential in nearly every game.
In the end, they have the talent on both sides of the ball to rightfully retain their status as a title favorite. And should they put it together, they may just get there this year.
Heat Blogs: The Heat Index does a tremendous job covering this team. You should be reading their work.
Keys to game: Kobe vs. LeBron! Mike Brown vs. LeBron! Pau vs Bosh! Bynum vs Eddy Curry! Okay that last one was a bit of a joke but you get my point. Tonight there’s a lot of individual match ups to look at.
Missing Wade is actually quite a big deal tonight because he offers that second perimeter threat that forces Kobe to expend a lot of energy on defense. And while James Jones (and Mike Miller) offer outside shooting (and in Miller’s case the ability to create off the dribble) they’re not the force that Wade is. So, tonight, Kobe can focus more on offense and as long as he’s active in closing out on his man, his defensive responsibility is diminished.
Offensively, though, Kobe will have a great deal of responsibility as he’ll again drive the car and be the key perimeter decision maker for the Lakers. It of course starts with his scoring and his ability to get open for good looks when moving off the ball. I expect that Kobe will see a variety of defenders tonight (Jones, Battier, LeBron, Miller) but the plan should mostly be the same vs. all of them. Kobe needs to work 18 feet and in as much as possible and preferably below the foul line when he’s looking to score. These are his money spots and even elite defenders (like LeBron) will struggle with his full arsenal when positioned in these areas. Beyond the scoring, Kobe will also need to show the commitment to setting up his big man that he did vs. Dallas because this is where the Lakers have an advantage.
Bosh is no slouch, of course, but Pau can do damage against the lanky left hander. Running some P&R where Pau can either roll into the paint or pop for his mid-range jumper will get him some good looks at the basket but also don’t discount Pau going into the post a bit more. Bosh is built very similar to Pau but Pau offers a bit more weight and more length. Having Bosh defend the post can have the duel affect of getting Pau going on offense but also putting some burden on Bosh’s legs by having to bang in the post (something that could affect his jumper on the other end).
Bynum too will need his touches on the block and the plan to get Pau going should be duplicated with Bynum. Joel Anthony is a good defensive center, but he’s undersized and should have problems with Bynum’s strength. If Bynum commits to running the floor, he should be able to establish deep post position to get easy baskets. Drew should also be able to take advantage of Anthony’s desire to help at the rim by attacking the offensive glass and hurting the Heat by securing extra possessions or scoring easily on put backs.
Going inside to Bynum and Gasol in a deliberate manner serves another purpose outside of getting the big guys into a groove, though. Being deliberate in this manner also slows the pace of the game and limits Miami’s chances to run out in transition where they thrive. The Heat play at the 2nd fastest pace in the league and love to get out in the open court for easy baskets. Earlier I mentioned Norris Cole’s proclivity for pushing the pace, but LeBron is the player that really brings the wow factor in the open court, hammering his way to the basket and finishing with controlled power. If the Lakers can successfully make the Heat play in the half court, they’ve already done a great deal of work towards limiting the Heat’s offensive effectiveness.
Once in the half court, however, the job doesn’t end as this is where the individual match ups become more important. LeBron has been a terror in half court sets, attackng more from the post while still using his elite athleticism to attack off the dribble in isolation and in the P&R. Matt Barnes will have his hands full banging with James in the post but also shading him towards his help and battling the screens the Heat use to free him up. Tonight’s a night where an engaged and productive MWP would be of great benefit to the Lakers as he has the strength and instincts to slow James and give reprieve to Barnes who will surely expend a lot of energy on D.
(As an aside, the approach the Lakers take to defending LeBron is something I’ll be watching closely. There’s not a coach in the league – save for Erik Spoelstra – that has as good a feel for what LeBron’s strengths and weaknesses are on offense and what his tendencies may be when he’s operating on O. Will the Lakers double team? Will they show the 2nd defender early or late? Will they play any zone? Will they deny him the ball? Whatever tactical answers Brown provides could give us insight into whether Brown thinks LeBron’s strengths are primarily passing, his ability to score, or how well he works off the ball. Should be an interesting night in that regard.)
The other key player is, of course, Chris Bosh. Over the years Bosh’s outside-in game has befuddled the Lakers, hitting countless jumpers and then using the threat of that shot to attack the paint off the dribble. The masterful defense Gasol employed against Dirk on Tuesday will be needed again tonight as they offer similar games (though Bosh is much more conventional in his attack). If Pau can effective contest Bosh’s jumper and stay down on his fakes, bottling him up becomes more likely and thus eliminates a big portion of Miami’s half court offense. However, if Bosh starts to rain jumpers and then drive the ball to get inside to finish, it will be a long, long night for L.A.’s defense.
Lastly, the Lakers need to close down penetration lanes and rotate well to all of Miami’s three point shooters. I mentioned Miller’s perfect night against the Spurs, but beyond him, Jones, Chalmers, Battier, and LeBron can all hit the deep jumper. That said, knowing personnel is also key when rotating and closing out as certain players you want shooting the deep ball (LeBron, Cole) and others you want to force to put the ball on the ground and create off the bounce (Jones, Battier, and to a lesser extent Miller).
While tonight has little impact on the standings and won’t mean much towards any end the year seedings, this is a big game. Anytime these two teams meet, with these star players going head to head, it matters. That said, don’t be surprised if it’s a role player that makes the difference. In the games these teams played last, it was Fisher and Miller’s contributions that swung the game in their team’s direction. Tonight, can Barnes be that guy? MWP? Does Fisher have another heroic effort in him? Or will it be Miller again? Maybe Battier or Cole breaks out? The answers to these questions could end up determining who leaves the arena with the W.
Where you can watch: 5pm tip time on TNT. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710AM.