Records: Lakers 17-21 (11th in the West), Heat 25-12 (1st in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (6th in the NBA), Heat 108.9 (T 2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (17th in the NBA), Heat 101.6 (12th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Heat: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh
Injuries: Lakers: Jordan Hill (out for the year), Steve Blake (out); Heat: none
The Lakers Coming in: First things first, Pau Gasol will make his return tonight after being reevaluated today. He will come off the bench as he eases his way back into game form, with the implication he’ll likely start on Sunday. This, of course, is fantastic news. Pau has not had his finest year to date, but his talent is very much needed on this team if they’re to accomplish the larger goals they’ve set for themselves.
Continuing with the happy theme, the Lakers have won two games in a row and are finally starting to show some consistent defensive fortitude. The opponents haven’t been the best offensive teams, but the Lakers have still been making the extra efforts and started to clean up their communication in a way that translates to any opponent. This is a team wide effort, but it’d be silly to overlook the value gained from Kobe taking a more active approach on defense (by guarding opposing playmakers each night). It’d also be silly to ignore that Dwight Howard has looked much better upon his return from his shoulder issue, showing more spring in his step and a bounciness around the rim that really helps the interior defense.
When combined with Earl Clark playing well on D and Ron continuing to be disruptive on whoever he’s being asked to guard, the Lakers are making strides on that end. Being able to sustain this effort is key and we’ll see if they have it in them, but the last two games have been a good start.
The Heat Coming in: Tonight represents the final game of a 6 game roadie for the Heat, a trip that’s seen them go 2-3 so far. Their up and down play has been a bit concerning, with coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James commenting about the team’s effort after a bad loss to the Jazz.
However, talk that like is quickly forgotten after a game like last night’s demolition of the Warriors. The Heat cruised to a win — leading by 30 after 3 quarters — ramping up their defensive intensity, creating easy baskets in the open court, and picking apart a solid Dubs’ defense in the halfcourt with strong execution.
At this point, I’d go into a discussion of who is driving the Heat’s strong play this year but that’s not really necessary, is it? LeBron James is having another phenomenal year, Wade is playing well after a rough start to the season, and while Bosh has seen a dip in his numbers it can be attributed to playing less minutes moreso than any decline in his game. With the addition of Ray Allen and the continued growth of Mario Chalmers, the Heat remain one of the few true contenders for the title and the favorite to get through an improved Eastern Conference.
Heat Blogs: The Heat Index does a fantastic job of covering this team from every angle. Check them out.
Keys to game: Normally the fact that the Heat are playing on the second night of a back to back and are at the end of a long road trip would be a key variable to this game. However, with last night’s blowout of the Warriors and the fact that this is a marquee matchup, there shouldn’t be any issues with tired legs or a lack of focus. This game matters to both teams and will be played as such.
That brings us back to matchups and who/where the advantages exist.
Defensively, I’m interested to see who starts out guarding LeBron. This season James has moved his game to the foul line and down even more, creating post up chances that lead to quality shots for himself and his teammates. His superior size and strength make him a load to deal with down there and whoever guards him will need to battle him for position and try to contain him in single coverage in order to avoid the types of passing chances that open up from double teaming. LeBron eats those chances up and the Heat become much more dangerous when everyone is involved. This isn’t to say that LeBron won’t operate from the wing too, however. He’s still a major threat in the P&R and the Heat run a lot of sets with him holding the ball above the arc while surveying the floor as cutters and screens operate along the baseline.
My sense is that Earl Clark will get the first shot on LeBron (and allow Ron to guard Haslem), but I also think starting with Ron on LeBron, Clark on Bosh, and Dwight on Haslem allows the Lakers defenders to play closest to their comfort zones (especially Dwight). We’ll see when the game starts, but the latter would probably be my preference.
I’m also interested in seeing Kobe defend Wade. While there’s a great respect between the two players, I’d also venture to say there’s no love lost either. These two have been the premier shooting guards in the league for a decade and whenever they go head to head the physicality ramps up and the competitiveness is brought out of both of them. Furthermore, Kobe’s been a terror defensively for the past couple of games but has done most of his work as an on the ball worker against primary initiators. Over the past two seasons, Wade has evolved into more of an off the ball threat, cutting and curling off picks first and operating as a P&R ball handler and in isolation second. Kobe mustn’t get lost off the ball, watching LeBron or Bosh work in isoation as Wade will find openings in the defense behind him by cutting into space and finishing.
Of course, while Kobe and Clark and Ron are important, the most important Laker on defense is Dwight Howard. Especially against a Heat team that loves to pressure the paint and then kick out to open shooters when the defense collapses. If Dwight can roam around the rim and protect the basket against LeBron and Wade, the Lakers wings can stay home more and not allow shooters to get the types of open looks they thrive on. The wings will need to limit dribble penetration and now allow straight line drives to the rim, but if they’re able to shade their man and funnel them to Dwight, the Lakers’ D will be poised to perform well.
Offensively this game comes down to a few factors.
First, the Lakers must protect the ball against Miami’s ball pressure. LeBron and Wade love to attack passing lanes and turn lazy ball movement into the types of live ball turnovers that become highlight reel baskets. Nash must also be aware of defenses trying to blitz him when he comes off the P&R, trapping him and knocking him off balance to force turnovers. In recent games, teams have gotten more aggressive with Nash (especially as the game goes on) and in any P&R that involves LeBron hedging, the risk of a trap increases.
Second, the Lakers must make the extra pass and then look inside for quick duck ins to Dwight. Against the Bucks, the Lakers started the game making these types of entries to Dwight and he was able to convert at the rim easily, fueling his energy for the rest of the game. Following this strategy again tonight will go a long way to taking advantage of Dwight’s size and strength advantage inside. I’m not advocating force feeding Howard, but keeping an attentive eye on hims and being aware of when he opens up for an easy entry is important.
Third, the Lakers must hit the outside shots that are made available to them. Miami is middle of the pack in terms of 3 point field goal percentage allowed, and can be overly reliant on their athleticism to recover to shooters around the arc after digging down to the paint to help. With Howard working inside (and Gasol, hopefully doing so as well when he comes off the bench), the Heat will likely help down low and then try to get back out to the wing to contest shots. The Lakers will do well to make them pay for helping down low by hitting the outside shots made available to them. Jamison and Ron, especially, will need to have their best efforts from behind the arc tonight.
The Lakers are really trying to build momentum and a win against the Heat would be a huge step in that direction. The Heat, despite some issues on the road this year, are still the champs and knocking them off would not only provide a boost of confidence but would serve as reinforcement that the team’s recent approach has them moving in the right direction.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM