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The back-to-back NBA champion Miami Heat and the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers are two teams heading in opposite directions and they’ll be squaring off in South Beach tonight at 5:00 p.m. on TNT.

Lakers Coming In: The Lakers come in to the game having lost 13 of their last 16 games. That said, they have won two of their last three and lost their last game at Chicago on a last second layup in overtime. The Lakers are 2-2 on their seven-game Grammy road trip and will play their next two games in the state of Florida before closing out the trip at Madison Square Garden.

Injury problems continued for the Lakers, who are already missing Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, and Xavier Henry. Pau Gasol missed practice yesterday and only nine Lakers practiced, which meant they were unable to do 5-on-5 drills.

The Lakers are thin, obviously, but it’s impressive how they continue to fight hard despite all the injury problems. Gasol has been incredible in January – averaging 20.4 points and 12.2 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, Kendall Marshall and Ryan Kelly have both been on a tear, as well. During the road trip, Kelly is a +5.5 per game (highest on the team) and averaging 14.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Marshall, on the other hand, has continued to be an effective distributor – averaging 11.5 assists on the road trip. Miami doesn’t have the strongest back court in the world so expect Marshall to have another field day.

Finally, it seems like the Lakers have found a dependable lineup combination this month. The combination of Gasol-Kelly-Johnson-Meeks-Marshall has been a +19 in 56 minutes this month. It’s the most effective and most used lineup combination for the Lakers in January. What’s interesting is that when the Lakers replace Kelly with Robert Sacre in the same lineup combination, the numbers fall drastically (-43 in 50 minutes in January). This exemplifies Kelly’s strong play throughout the month.

Heat Coming In: The Miami Heat are well on their way to at least another Eastern Conference Final appearance in the weak East. That being said, they’ve lost four of their last seven and are now four games behind the Indiana Pacers for the No. 1 seed in the East.

We won’t see Dwyane Wade tonight as the guard continues to rest.

That last sentence essentially tells us what the Heat really care about – the playoffs. They know that there is no point to play their oft-injured star in a meaningless regular season game when they know they need him healthy for May and June.

This may bode well for the Lakers. The Heat struggle without Wade in the lineup and are only 6-6. With him on the floor, they’re 24-6.

With Wade out, we will see plenty of LeBron and Chris Bosh. James has had another incredible year, averaging 26.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists. The “6.7 rebounds” is nice for James, but it’s also glaring for the team as a whole. James is the leading rebounder with just 6.7 rebounds. The Heat are the worst rebounding team in the league, averaging just 36.5 rebounds per game.

Head-to-Head: The Heat have beaten the Lakers in seven of their last eight meetings. These two teams squared off on Christmas Day and the Lakers played the Heat close before succumbing in the last half of the fourth quarter. The Heat shot 51.3 percent from the field in that game and won, 101-95.

Miami also grabbed 43 rebounds in that game – their second highest rebounding total of the season. The Lakers may have Gasol and Jordan Hill on their roster, but they’re actually a pathetic rebounding team as a whole. The team may rank 18th in the league in total rebounding, but they’re dead last in rebound percentage. This means they lose plenty of rebound battles. Hill’s diminishing minutes with the team may have something to do with this, so it’ll be interesting to see how much Mike D’Antoni plays him against a poor rebounding opponent.

If the Lakers want to have a chance in this game, they’re going to have to prevent the Heat from getting easy shots. They shoot an NBA best 64 percent from 0-8 feet. However, they’re just an average mid-range shooting team and with Wade out, the Lakers can stay in the game if they force the Heat to take low percentage shots and clean up the glass when they miss. That’s not an easy task, but it’s possible.

On the other end of the court, the Lakers need to continue to move the ball well. They have an AST% of 65.4 percent in January and that’s a testament to Marshall’s great play. When the Lakers move the ball well, they get good looks from three point land. When they get good looks from three point land, they make a lot of threes. When they make a lot of threes, they win.

Though that sounded like a DIRECTV commercial, it’s true. In wins this season, the Lakers shoot 43 percent from downtown compared to just 33 percent in losses. Three pointers are a big part of the Lakers game and it all starts with solid ball movement.

The Spread: The Heat are 11 point favorites. With Wade out and the Lakers playing motivated basketball, it’s not too farfetched to believe that the Lakers can cover the spread.

 

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 18, 2014

The Los Angeles Lakers finally snapped their six game losing streak this week and they did it in dramatic fashion against longtime rival Boston. The Lakers had an up and down week and were inconsistent as evidenced by two losses to Cleveland and Phoenix.

The Good: The Lakers scored over 100 points in all three games this week. With their defense struggling all season long, they need the offense to consistently put up 100+ in order to stay competitive in games. They were able to do so this week.

The Lakers shot 60 percent from three point land in Boston after shooting around 30 percent in the 13 games leading up to the showdown at the Garden. Kendall Marshall, Jodie Meeks, and Wes Johnson were all spot on from beyond the arc. The trio combined for 23-of-50 from three point land.

Speaking of Marshall, he continues to show that he’s the real deal. He has 53 assists in the last four games, which is 12 more than anyone else during that span. In the win against Boston, he hit the go ahead three pointer late in the fourth quarter showing signs of clutch.

Ryan Kelly also played the best game of his young career at Boston – scoring 20 points and playing a critical role in the fourth quarter. In fact, he’s the only player on the Lakers during the last 14 games to have a positive plus-minus rating at +0.4. Those aren’t from garbage minutes, either. Kelly played in all 14 games and averaged 18 minutes.

Finally, Pau Gasol continues to play well as he continues to put up vintage Pau numbers — at least offensively. This week he averaged 22.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Oh, and the victory over the Celtics meant that the Lakers have now beaten their cross country rivals five of the last six times. Nothing better than dominating your biggest rival.

The Bad: The Lakers continue to excel in the art of not defending well. Yes, of course, they have injuries and Mike D’Antoni’s system doesn’t exactly stress defense but check out these atrocious numbers:

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In other words, bet the over.

I actually tried to see how many times Laker fans won Jack In The Box tacos this year at Staples Center (the Lakers won and held the opponent to less than 100 points) and was surprised to see that number was six times in eight home wins. What does this mean? It means that the Lakers win when they defend. Simple as that.

They got a break last night because they were on fire from three point land and because the Celtics are the Celtics. The fact of the matter is the Lakers continue to be an awful defensive team and that’s why they fell into that awful slump.

Fans can make all the injury excuses they want. The team still has guys like Jordan Hill, Pau Gasol, and Jodie Meeks who have been in the league. There’s no excuse why Gasol has the second worst defensive rating on the Lakers.

Offensively, turnovers continued to be a problem for the Lakers. After just turning it over 12 times against Cleveland, the Lakers coughed it up 36 times over the last two road games. In the win against Boston, they did a great job in the first quarter with just one turnover. However, in the last three frames they averaged six per quarter.

The Lakers also got killed on the offensive glass this week. Their opponents averaged 15 offensive rebounds per game while the Lakers just had 7.3. The disparity in offensive rebounds means that opponents are getting more opportunities to score.

Finally, it was clear that all the losing was causing some Lakers to get frustrated. Nick Young’s punch toward Phoenix’s Alex Len resulted in his suspension from the game against Boston. The Lakers can’t afford to lose players for no reason with all these injuries bringing them down. It was only one game but the team needs to be more disciplined even when they frustration sets in.

What’s On Tap: The Lakers play two sets of back-to-backs this week. Tomorrow they have a matinee at Toronto before playing an MLK showdown against the Bulls. Then, after a couple days off they head to Florida to take on both the Heat and the Magic.

BOSTON — The Los Angeles Lakers drained 11 of their 15 second half three pointers and scored 11 unanswered points to finish the game to defeat the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, 107-104, on Friday night in Rajon Rondo’s long awaited return.

Kendall Marshall’s three with 1:09 remaining in the game put the Lakers on top, 105-104, and they hung on to win. Prior to his triple, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson added threes of their own to close the gap.

After Marshall made his three, the Lakers were winding the clock down when the Celtics forced Wes Johnson to a jump ball. During the jump ball, both players appeared to tap the ball out of bounds simultaneously. The ball was awarded to the Lakers. However, after a video review, the officials called for a re-jump. Johnson won the re-jump and Ryan Kelly sank two free throws to seal the victory.

Marshall scored 19 points, 14 assists and was 4-for-5 from downtown in the victory. The Lakers also got solid production from Kelly, who scored 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Pau Gasol led the team in points and rebounds with 24 and 13, respectively.

Rajon Rondo made his season debut and was introduced as the team’s captain during the pre-game introductions. He showed his leadership in the second quarter by making three consecutive lay-ups and giving a Celtics an early cushion. Rondo was limited to 19 minutes of action, though, and wasn’t very impactful after the first half. Rondo finished with eight points and four assists.

Kelly Olynyk put on a clinic for the C’s, scoring 25 points and dishing seven assists in the loss. Phil Pressey also added nine assists as the Celtics had 34 assists on 44 field goals made. They came into the game ranked 28th in the category with just 19.8 assists per game. Their solid ball movement was a big reason why they were leading throughout most of the game.

The Lakers, however, exemplified great ball movement as well. They recorded 27 assists on 37 field goals made. Whenever the ball was moving, they were efficient. That said, after only turning the ball over once in the first quarter, the team had coughed it up 19 times when the final buzzer sounded. The Celtics, on the other hand, only turned it over seven times.

Because of the turnover disparity, the Celtics took 25 more shots than the Lakers did in the game. However, because of the Lakers impressive three point shooting, especially in the second half, the Celtics couldn’t muster a W. After shooting near 30 percent throughout the last 13 games, the Lakers exploded from downtown and made 60 percent of their threes.

Whether it was luck, impressive ball movement, or both, the Lakers will take it. It’s been awhile since they’ve gotten a break like the one’s they got tonight (the re-jump) and it was good to see the team not falter in the second half.

One thing also rang true in this game: when these two teams play, the records must be thrown away because more often than not it’s going to be a classic and tonight’s game had the fans buzzing and reminiscing of the 2008 and 2010.

The Lakers will now continue their Grammy Road Trip on Sunday as they play a matinee in Toronto.

Let’s be honest. The NBA is a whole lot better when the Lakers and Celtics are formidable teams.

The rivalry has one characteristic that no other rivalry in sports has. Almost every major rivalry in sports started because of geography or the two teams being in the same division or conference.

USC-UCLA? Same city.

Bears-Packers? Four hour drive.

Redskins-Cowboys? Same division.

Red Sox-Yankees? Only a four hour drive, once again. (Though, the whole Babe Ruth sale and Curse of the Bambino was a unique twist. But the Curse is over and the rivalry has lost a bit of its luster.)

What about the Dodgers and Yankees? It’s nice that they’ve maintained their rivalry to some extent, but they used to be crosstown rivals. Doesn’t count.

Boston and Los Angeles are over 2,500 miles apart. They’ve never played in the same division and never will – let alone the same conference. These two teams are rivals based on one sole reason – they’ve met in the NBA Finals 11 times and have combined for 33 NBA titles and that’s what makes it the greatest rivalry in sports. The rivalry is based on the battle for league dominance, not geographical supremacy.

Unfortunately for all NBA fans, though, these two storied franchises aren’t exactly experiencing halcyon days in 2014. Combined, they’ve lost 24 of their last 27 games and have a greater interest in ping pong balls over the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.

They’ll meet tonight in the first of two games this regular season at the TD Garden in Boston. It’ll be the first time the two teams play each other since the post-KG era in Boston. The Lakers played 25 games (including playoffs) against the Celtics during the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era and won 13 games. They’ve won seven of their last 10 regular season games against the Green.

The Celtics received some good news when they learned that star point guard Rajon Rondo will make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers “barring any setbacks”. Having one of the best distributors in the game (averaged 11.3 assists per game over the last three seasons) will bring flow to the Celtics’ offense, which ranks 28th in assists this season. And although Rondo has been criticized for his shooting throughout his career (24.1 percent career three point shooter), he has a career two-point shooting percentage of 49.9 percent.

The Celtics made a three-way trade this week with Miami and Golden State, shipping their third-leading scorer, Jordan Crawford to Golden State for Joel Anthony and a pair of draft picks. They could potentially have three first round draft picks this summer and that could go up assuming they decide to trade Rondo, too.

On the court, the Celtics have been a solid mid-range shooting team this year. They’re 4th in shot attempts from 16-24 feet and have made 41.3 percent of those shots (8th best). However, their three-point shooting has been abysmal and Rondo isn’t going to change that. In their last 13 games, the Celtics have shot below 30 percent from beyond the arc. The team doesn’t really have size – their two tallest players, Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani are both inexperienced rookies. In fact, Celtics centers have allowed a PER of 19.7 against opposing centers this year.

Aside from Rondo, the Celtics will look to Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, and Jared Sullinger for production. Green leads the team in scoring with 15.7 points per game. Bradley is a sharp shooter who has made 38.3 percent of his triples this season. Meanwhile, Sullinger leads the team in rebounding with 7.8 boards per game.

The Lakers march into Boston not having won since January 3 at home against the Jazz. They’ve lost 12 of their last 13 and  have made just 31.7 percent of their threes during that span. The Lakers have been reliant on three point shooting all year long. In wins, the Lakers have made 41 percent of their threes compared to just 33 percent in losses.

They’ll be without Nick Young tonight, who was suspended for throwing a punch at Phoenix’s Alex Len in Wednesday’s loss at the desert. That’s the last news the Lakers needed to hear as they’re already missing Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Xavier Henry, and Jordan Farmar. The Lakers rank fourth in terms of points per play on the Isolation. It’s going to be difficult for the Lakers to succeed in that department with Young out of the lineup since 23 percent of plays he runs are out of the ISO and the Lakers average 0.9 PPP when he runs it.

To replace Young, the Lakers signed Manny Harris to a ten-day contract yesterday. Harris leads the D-League in scoring with 30.6 points and had a 49 point performance earlier this month. With the roster depleted, don’t be surprised if Harris plays double-digit minutes in his Laker debut.

The Lakers are in for a tough one tonight especially with Rondo coming back for the C’s. If they’re going to win this game, they need to improve their three-point shooting. The team lives and dies by the three and they must take quality threes if they’re going to stay competitive in this game. When they’re not shooting threes, they need to use their two hottest players – Pau Gasol (19.7 points, 11.6 rebounds in January) and Kendall Marshall (three straight double doubles) – efficiently in the pick and roll.

Finally, the Lakers need to wake up after halftime. The Lakers have shot just 38 percent in 3rd quarters over the last 13 games and have been outscored by an average of 7.5 points in that span. Whether it’s lack of making adjustments or tiring out, the Lakers have to play a strong 48 minutes. If they do that, they can possibly squeak out a win on the road.

Week At A Glance

Andre Khatchaturian —  January 13, 2014

Nothing has gone right for the Lakers in the last 11 games. They’ve only won one game during that span and most of the losses have been ugly…and that’s putting it lightly. The team hasn’t lost 10 of 11 since 2005 — the last year they missed the playoffs.

Seven of the ten losses have been by margins greater than 10 points. Their latest loss was a 36-point drubbing from the Clippers. At one point in that game, the Lakers trailed by 43.

It doesn’t matter whether Laker fans are on board with tanking or not — the fact remains that the team rarely goes on slumps like these historically. Times are, of course, different these days. The team lacks confidence and has been marred with injuries all season long. In fact, only four Lakers have played in all 11 games during this horrid slump — Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, and Ryan Kelly.

It’s hard to find any bright spots because everybody is playing poorly — especially on defense. Over the last 11 games, there isn’t a single Laker who has a defensive rating below 100. Pau Gasol, who has been pretty solid offensively during the slump, has the worst defensive efficiency at 115.2.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though. The silver lining throughout this slump has been the play of Kendall Marshall. Let’s rephrase that — the offensively play of Kendall Marshall. As awful as the Lakers have defended under Mike D’Antoni, he’s incredible in elevating the game of point guards. Marshall has thrived under D’Antoni’s system — averaging 0.92 points per play as the P&R Ball Handler. The team averages 0.7 points per play in P&R Ball Handler situations this year so it’s clear that Marshall has improved the P&R for the Lakers.

That’s where the good news ends, though. Even the proponents of Operation: Tank can’t be happy because the Lakers still aren’t bad enough. Along with the Kings and Jazz, there are still five Eastern Conference teams that have a worse record than the Lakers. This means that the probability that the Lakers land a top three pick are still pretty low.

It’s hard to imagine that the Lakers will continue their free fall. Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake should be back eventually – though it may be wise for the Lakers to begin considering perhaps shutting down Kobe for the rest of the season. That said, knowing Kobe’s competitiveness that probably won’t happen.

Until his return, the Lakers are in for a tough test. They begin their annual Grammy Road Trip this week when they head to Phoenix on Wednesday to start a string of seven games away from Staples Center. The road trip will begin after a home tilt against Cleveland tomorrow. They will also play against the Celtics at the Garden in one of the most storied rivalries in sports – a rivalry that can now be considered dormant because of the two teams’ performances this season.

Even in the Lakers’ best years, the Grammy Road Trip has given them fits. They went 6-0 in 2009 during their championship run, but aside from that year, they’re just 33-31 in the last 10 years (excluding 2009).

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Again, these were competitive Laker teams that made the playoffs essentially every year. This year’s Lakers will most likely struggle big time during the grueling trip which features a match against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in South Beach.