Records: Lakers 22-14 (4th in West), Heat 28-8 (2nd in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (14th in NBA), Heat 110.3 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.9 (11th in NBA), Heat 100.5 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Heat: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony
Injuries: Lakers: none; Heat: none
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won 2 in a row and looked (mostly) good doing it. The offense has finally started to look better (though, to be fair, against defenses that aren’t near elite) as ball and player movement have picked up and players look much more comfortable in Mike Brown’s sets. In a report at Land O’ Lakers, Dave McMenamin explains the better execution stems from Mike Brown letting go and has the principal parties explaining it. This quote from Fisher does a good job explaining why he thinks the Lakers are doing better on O:
I think there are a number of reasons why we’re doing some things better on the offensive end and so I think it’s a combination of him trusting us and us trusting him in terms of not just whether he’s calling the plays or not, but the plays we’re running, the things we’re looking for, putting the right guys in the right position to be successful and I think most importantly, not just him letting go, but us as players saying, ‘Regardless of what he’s doing in terms of trying to orchestrate, the five guys that are on the floor are the ones that make the difference.’ So, as five players on the floor, it’s up to us to figure out how to be successful within whatever the coach is trying to do.
Fisher’s quote (and others by Gasol, Bynum, and Kobe) that bring up increased freedom and the resulting comfort level not only speak to Brown’s coaching style but to the mentality of this Lakers team. Remember, this core group played in the triangle for years and is used to having more responsibility on the floor in dictating the flow of the offense. So, in that sense, it doesn’t surprise me that with the reins loosened, and the players given more responsibility to make things work, the results are better. Of course, it also helps that the team has had some time to actually learn how to make things work.
The Heat Coming in: Coming into today, people will focus on the Heat’s last game – a loss to the Jazz – and see that LeBron once again passed up a game winning shot and use that as some sort of referendum on James (and to some extent this team). And, in some ways, that’s fair. In that contest LeBron led the Heat back from a big deficit with several amazing shots but when the game was on the line, he made the pass even though the shot he would have taken was not unlike many he took in leading the comeback. On the other hand, on the play in question LeBron drew two defenders, made a good pass to a wide open player that has a history of making the exact shot he happened to miss on that possession. It was a good play that didn’t work out. It happens. Plus, look at LeBron’s numbers from that game and it’s hard to criticize: he made two-thirds of his shots, scored 35 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out 6 assists. It was a monster performance.
Forget LeBron though, and, forget that loss. Before that game the Heat had won 9 straight games and all of them by double figures. They’ve been steamrolling opponents with strong defense and an opportunistic fast break offense that produced countless highlight reel plays. In the half court their sets look more refined and their teamwork has improved. This team has been playing with style while also delivering substance and it’s one of the reasons they’re the favorite to win the championship.
Heat Blogs: Check out the Heat Index for tons of insight and analysis on this team.
Keys to game: I know this can be said for every game, but for the Lakers to win this contest they’ll need to bring a combination of their best energy and execution. The Heat will be up for this game (national TV, the Lakers, coming off a loss) and the Lakers must match that.
From an execution stand point, the Lakers must best today. The Heat’s athleticism can turn this game into a laugher early on so the Lakers need to avoid turnovers (especially live ball ones) and need to grind the game into a half court contest that’s run cleanly. A point of emphasis for the Lakers must be making clean entry passes and good reads out of double teams because the Heat are fantastic at closing down passing angles in the blink of an eye. This is especially important for Andrew Bynum who will see a fair share of one on one coverage but will also be attacked on double teams. When those doubles come, he must make quick reads and crisp passes to teammates moving into position to make a play themselves. The Heat turn open passes into steals and open jumpers into highly contested ones better than any other team in the league and the Lakers must be ready to combat a team that has such strong perimeter defenders.
That elite wing D also means Kobe can’t simply try to work in isolation to get his baskets. The Heat can throw the best trio of wing defenders in the league (Wade, LeBron, and Battier) against him, so Kobe must work well off the ball and get good screens set for him to get him open. Curls to the paint, quick pin downs that open him up at the elbow, and quick cuts off the ball into the post will be needed for him to shake free and get good looks at the rim.
Defensively, slowing the Heat in transition is the biggest goal. The Heat play at the 7th fastest pace in the league and use their speed to get good looks of all types. I’ve mentioned how turnovers can fuel their fast break attacks but the Heat are just as dangerous in early offense chances, pushing the ball to collapse the defense and then hitting open shooters in rhythm for three point shots. It was actually this style of game that the Heat were allowed to play in the last match up, a game where Miami hit half their 18 attempts from behind the arc. The Lakers, then, will need to slow the ball earlier and mark shooters when they run to the three point line. Especially key is getting to Battier and Mike Miller in the corners and Chalmers trailing to the shoulders of the arc for wide open J’s.
All that said, even if the Lakers can successfully make this a half court game, they still need to stay disciplined. The Heat run a lot of P&R’s with Wade, LeBron, Chalmers, and Cole and the Lakers must know who they’re guarding and how to defend those actions based off the personnel. LeBron and Wade have avoided taking three pointers this season and are more focused on attacking the paint when coming off picks. The Lakers must lay off these two and entice them to shoot the long two pointer rather than playing them closely. Both of them possess superior quickness and will beat their men off the bounce if crowded. In fact, both will beat their men regardless so the Lakers back line help must be ready to step up early and deter drives to the rim, and if met at the rim, contest without fouling.
Bosh – who’s expected to return today after tending to his grandmother’s funeral – must also be accounted for in the half court. The Heat love to run pick and pop actions with Bosh while also running sets to isolate him at the elbow. All these sets maximize Bosh’s ability to hit the open 18 foot jumper so the help and recover schemes of the Lakers must be ready to contest his shots and also step up at the rim should he use his show and go moves to get into the paint. Bosh’s versatility has long given the Lakers problems so Gasol (and Bynum/Murphy) will have their hands full this afternoon trying to limit his effectiveness.
Ultimately, this is a game the Lakers would love to have as it’s a measuring stick contest for them. If they can get a win it would serve as a stepping stone and, potentially, propel them towards a strong second half of the season. Not to say it would erase some of the needs this team has, but it would show that they do have the potential to raise their games. Regardless of the result, though, I’m simply looking for a good showing. The Lakers are at home and have been playing well. I’d like that to continue today.
Where you can watch: 12:30 start time on ABC. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.