Records: Lakers 46-15 (1st in West), Heat 30-31 (8th in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.9 (10th in NBA), Heat 105.6 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.8 (1st in NBA), Heat 104.8 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Heat: Rafer Alston, Dwyane Wade, Quentin Richardson, Michael Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal
The Lakers Coming in: On the road again. Pump up the Willie Nelson and get used to the way it sounds. This is a road heavy month and it starts this evening. Phil Jackson has often liked being on the road because it gives his team a chance to come together and not be distracted by all the comforts of home. The guys are together a lot more and that can lead to better team play and focus as everyone starts to be on the same page about what they want to accomplish on the court. And, I’m sure what they’re reading on that page is more of what they saw against the Pacers. Indy is not a good team by any means, but the Lakers played a brand of ball that will serve them well in the home stretch of the regular season. Our bigs were efficient, Kobe (while not that efficient with his shooting) found many ways to help the team, our guards made shots, and Artest led the way on the other end of the floor by clamping down on defense. That is a formula that will be successful and the Lakers need to find more of that in these last 20 games.
The Heat Coming in: The Heat are not a very good team right now. They’ve lost 4 of their last 5 and their one win was a 4 point sqeeze by of the Warriors. The Heat are barley holding on for the 8th seed in the East and have dipped below .500 for the season. Not good times for the boys in South Beach. Wade has been injured, but he’s been strong in the two games that he’s been back and looks completely recovered from the calf injury that sidelined him for 4 contests.
And speaking of Wade, his future is probably the #1 story surrounding the Heat, right now. You would think a push for the playoffs, or other subplots like Chalmers becoming the 3rd PG (behind a guy that was cut by the Nets and another that was just arrested last week) or Beasley’s inability to crack the crunch time line up of Coach Erik Spoelstra consistently would be bigger deals, but what happens after this season is on the minds of many. Wade is the key to this franchise and without him around the Heat are no longer relevant. Everyone knows that Wade loves his life in Miami, but does he love it more than winning? Unlike Lebron or Bosh or any of the other marquee names in the super FA class of 2010, Wade has reached the mountain top and has raised the Larry O’Brien trophy. That feeling is one that you can’t ever forget and Wade wants it again. So fans and team executives alike are very mindful that they must surround Wade with good enough players to truly be contenders or he will not want to stay around and carry a sub par team like KG did in ‘Sota for all those years. The clock for Riles is already ticking on this one and everyone in that city (and around the league) knows it.
Heat Blogs: Phillip pointed you there this morning, but check out Hot Hot Hoops for all your Heat news and notes. They’re putting in work.
Keys to game: This is a game where the Lakers can’t take the other team’s relative lack of talent or their record as an excuse to not play a strong game. The Heat are an above average defensive team and will pressure the ball and try to push our post players off the block. So, on offense the Lakers need to play smart and tough. That means not committing the silly turnovers that have plagued them in the first half of recent games while also battling a team that will test them physically. I’m normally a big proponent of going inside and that doesn’t change this evening. Beasley has no hope against Pau and Bynum is a much bigger and physical player than a declining Jermaine.
As for Kobe, this is one of those games where he gets excited to play. Wade is a true peer and a player that Kobe respects a great deal. That means that Kobe will likely be in attack mode to make Dwyane work on defense. That’s a good strategy, but I’d also like to see the “set up his mates” Kobe that we’ve seen in the last two games. Finding that balance will be key tonight as the advantages we have on offense are real, but we need teamwork to exploit them. That means crisp ball movement and solid decision making from our ball handlers.
Defensively, the game plan to stop the Heat starts and ends with Wade. The Lakers are ideally suited to tag team Wade with wing defenders by throwing both Kobe and Artest at him all game. It’s a strategy that I hope to see as both Kobe and Ron have been in defensive grooves lately. Wade cannot be stopped completely, but he can be slowed. I hope the Lakers play him to be a jumpshooter and try to take away his tremendous first step. Because we all know what can happen when D-Wade gets in the lane. But keeping him out of the lane will need to be a team effort. In the last game, the Heat were quite successful running the high P&R for Wade, but doing it in a way where the big man was setting a back screen on Kobe above the three point line. In that game, our bigs were always hanging back and allowing Wade a full head of steam in his attack to the rim. That allowed him easy finishes at the cup and and lots of space for his sweet pull up jumper from the mid-range. If the Heat go to this again, I hope to see better “shows” from our bigs to slow down Wade’s momentum.
As for the other Heat players, the Lakers need to be aware of Beasley’s all around offensive ability, Q camping behind the three point line, Haslem as a pick and pop player from the top of the key, and of Jermaine on the block. However, these are all secondary options to Wade or options build off Wade and Alston’s ability to create with the ball in their hands. I hope to see the Lakers force the Heat’s offensive sets more to the sideline where all these options are easier to defend and active hands in both the passing lanes and in contesting shots. This is a day to be very aware of Wade with the ball in his hands, but not to lose track of the man that you’re guarding. Every secondary player mentioned above is a capable shooter when left alone. And if you get lost on defense or are caught sleeping, Wade is more than a willing passer and will make you pay by hitting the open man.
Miami is always a tough match up for the Lakers and always seem to push us to the brink. We know what it took last time to get the win. So tonight, come with your hardhat on and be ready for another team’s best effort. They are at home and I expect a crowd that is ready for the visiting world champs. Play smart and with urgency and this should be another W. Let’s hope the guys go get it.
Where you can watch: 5:00 pm start here in the West nationally televised on TNT (where we’re the early game – yay!) and locally on KCAL, also on ESPN Radio 710am.