Records: Lakers 24-27 (10th in the West), Heat 33-14 (1st in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.0 (8th in the NBA), Heat 109.6 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.0 (17th in the NBA), Heat 101.5 (T 10th 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, Undonis Haslem, Chris Bosh
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Heat: none
The Lakers Coming in: Coming into the last game of the 7 game Grammy Road trip, the Lakers are 4-2. It hasn’t always been pretty and the loss to the Celtics certainly stings, but the team has found a way to win games that they’ve needed to. So, on the court, things have been relatively good. Off the court, meanwhile, the drama swirls as comments from Kobe, Dwight, Mike D’Antoni, and even Dwight’s dad have all been top of the fold news stories in the past week. In some ways, this is business as usual for a Laker franchise that knows more drama than TNT. On the other hand, when you’re not one of the top teams, this sort of drama tends to have more legs and leave a lasting affect on the narrative of the season. The only way to escape, of course, is to win more. And the only way to do that is to compartmentalize and narrow your focus on what matters: the action on the floor. The Lakers — especially those not familiar with what it’s like being a Laker — are learning what it takes to do this, but it’s a learning experience for this group. I think D’Antoni had it right when he said he’d like for all the other BS to stop; for guys to quit having loose conversations with those not inside the locker room that are, more often than not, turned into he said-he said stories. No, this team needs to come together and do so quickly. A win against the Heat would certainly help in this regard and serve as a nice close to a tumultuous, yet so far successful roadie.
The Heat Coming in: The Heat have won 4 in a row, 5 of their last 7, and 9 of their last 11. They are again proving that they are one of the elite teams of the league and look primed to defend their championship.
Any discussion of the Heat begins (and, to a certain extent, ends) with LeBron James. In the Heat’s last 5 games, James is averaging 30.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.8 assists while shooting 68.4% from the field and 56.3% from behind the arc. On Monday against the Bobcats, he missed one shot in 14 tries while on Friday against the Clippers he missed twice in 11 tries. Both times he scored at least 30 points and made the game look easy. If there’s a better player in the game today, I’ve yet to see him play. It’s this level of play that is not just carrying his team, but also setting the standard that other players must try to live up to. As a basketball fan, it’s great to watch. As a fan of team that’s going to see him on the other side of the floor, it’s a bit scary.
As a team, the Heat are also playing better defense of late. In 4 of their last 6 games, their opponent has not scored 90 points. In their last 5 games, they’re forcing nearly 17 turnovers a game and with their ability to change ends quickly are turning those miscues into easy points. They’re also limiting teams’ makes from behind the arc and forcing them into contested shots all over the floor. In essence, the Heat are raising their game and making life extremely difficult on their opponents.
Heat Blogs: The Heat Index is one of the best team sites on the net. Give them a read for great insight on this team.
Keys to game: Let’s get straight to the point, the Lakers will have a hard time winning this game. This year they’ve been a poor road team, especially against opponents who have winning records. Furthermore, the Heat, as detailed above, are playing some very good basketball. Combine that with the fact that every team seems to get up to play the Lakers and there’s little chance the Lakers won’t see a strong effort from Miami. That said, there are specific things the Lakers need to do in order to head back to L.A. with a 5-2 record on this road trip.
First, as a team, the Lakers must control the tempo and take care of the ball. The Lakers have been at their best when they’ve been able to dictate pace by methodically slowing the game down. Against a Heat team that has more talent than they do, the Lakers must find a way to keep possessions down and ensure that the flow matches what they want it to be. That means attacking the Heat from the post, through Kobe, to keep the game at a speed that can be maintained over the course of the entire contest.
This also means taking care of the ball and not forcing passes that the Heat can take the other way for dunks and lay ups. Key to this is how the Lakers handle possessions when Kobe isn’t in the post. When the Lakers run the P&R, they must be aware that the Heat want to blitz the ball handler and find counters to beating this aggressive style. Nash will need to keep his dribble and not get trapped, but the Lakers will also need to have secondary options and release valves breaking open that can turn a trap into a 3 on 2 advantage somewhere else on the floor. Key to achieving this will be Earl Clark and MWP who will be moving off the ball on the weak side while Nash, Dwight, and Kobe operate on the strong side. If those two can break free and find ways to create with the ball once they get it, they can successfully break down some of Miami’s pressure schemes to create easier shots both on the perimeter and in the paint.
The Lakers’ bench must keep this trend going when they enter the game and not let the Heat’s ball pressure — especially in the Norris Cole/Steve Blake match up — turn the game in their favor. Ball security from Blake, Meeks, and Jamison will be just as important as it is for Kobe, Nash, and Dwight with the first unit. If the reserves can find a way to generate solid offensive possessions, they will find openings for good shots, especially when LeBron and Wade are on the bench and the Heat’s perimeter athleticism falls off.
Defensively, the Lakers must find a way to keep LeBron from dominating the game in the paint. LeBron has been great at breaking his man down off the dribble and getting good looks at the rim, so Ron and Clark must do a good job of keeping him in front of them and not allowing clean paths to the rim. They must also battle LeBron for position in the post and ensure that he’s not able to simply back down to a spot inside 12 feet where his arsenal of turnaround jumpers, quick drives, and baby hook shots are nearly unstoppable. LeBron will usually find ways to get his points, but if he’s getting them mostly from the wing, you just have to tip your cap and move on. He can’t be allowed to get 30 points on lay ups, dunks, and post plays.
The Lakers must also be prepared to deal with all the off-ball actions the Heat run for Wade and Ray Allen. In the first game between these two teams, Wade killed the Lakers on quick cuts off the ball were he either darted into the creases of the D while his man (usually Kobe) got caught ball watching or used quick picks on the weak side to duck into the paint while LeBron held the ball up high. The Lakers bigs — especially Dwight — will need to be aware not only of LeBron working with the ball high looking to drive, but of the screens being set all over the floor to free up Wade and Allen moving into their favored spots to either get shots in the paint (Wade) or set up for outside jumpers (Allen).
I’ve yet to mention Chris Bosh, but look for him to be better than he was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. In that game Bosh couldn’t buy a basket as jumper after jumper rimmed out. In this game, he’ll look to work in isolation and out of the P&R to get his looks and the Lakers bigs must be ready to help and then recover back to Bosh and not surrender the types of open looks he normally knocks down. Every rotation must be sharp or the Heat will have success.
Again, though, this game will likely come down to pace and ball security. When these teams played last, the Heat jumped out to an early lead simply because the Lakers couldn’t deal with their ball pressure, committing turnovers that Miami turned into dunks. However, as the game went on, the Lakers found their stride, battled back, and had the game tied in the closing minutes. If the Lakers are able to establish their preferred tempo while taking care of the ball earlier in this game, they’ll be right there. It’s easier said than done, of course, but this must be their number one focus.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.