Records: Lakers 46-19 (3rd in West), Heat 43-21 (3rd in East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Heat 110.6 (6th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (8th in NBA), Heat 103.5 (6th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Heat: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Erick Dampier
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Heat: Udonis Haslem (out)
The Lakers Coming in: When a team has won 8 consecutive games and has an average scoring margin of +12 in the last 4 of those wins, things are going well. As we’ve documented recently, it’s all been keyed on very good play on both sides of the ball as the Lakers have clamped down on D while executing their offense at a high level as well.
If there’s been one area that does need some attention and improvement, it’s been the play of the bench. Matt Barnes is back in the fold and while his legs look fresh with his injury seemingly fully behind him, his timing is not yet back to what it was before his knee was scoped. Combined with a somewhat inconsisted Shannon and a steady, yet unspectacular Blake the Lakers’ reserves have done enough to keep opponents at arms length but not enough to inspire unyielding support of their play. That said, if some up and down play from the reserves is the only issue that the Lakers have to contend with, I’d say they’re doing quite well for themselves. So in the end, I’m quite happy with how they’ve played overall of late. (Understatement alert.)
The Heat Coming in: Disarray may be too strong a word, but the Heat are approaching that point lately. Losers of 5 straight, the team is starting to show the wear of a bright spotlight and heavy expectations with results that aren’t what many would expect from such a talented group. Whether it’s the coach saying players shed tears after a close loss, players calling for more touches, or more questions about lineup decisions, this group is certainly not anywhere near it’s best as the regular season winds to a close.
Blame can be – and has been – assigned to many places, including the coach, the players, and (even if only through critical analysis of the team’s construction) upper management. And while stories of this groups demise are pre-mature, they do have some real problems of late.
And, in my opinion, it starts with the fact that their offense is not in balance and is too reliant on the scoring talents of their star players rather than those same players’ ability to help and improve their mates’ games. Essentially, it comes down to the lack of an offensive system to lean on and a way to fully incorporate the entire team when looking to score points. Handing the ball to LeBron or Wade or Bosh in one of their sweet spots and telling them to go to work can be effective based off their sheer talent but it doesn’t promote team play nor is that a reliable option down the stretch of close games when baskets are harder to come by.
The fact that their big men are only finishers and not initiators of offense further hurts this team because that only puts more responsibility on Wade and James to create offesne every single possession rather than allowing them to work off the ball and simultaneously be threats that the D has to account for and be finishers with others setting them up. I mean, look at the other successful (championship caliber) teams. Those groups all have bigs that are both finishers and players that can be given the ball at the high post where they can pick out teammates with good passing: Lakers (Gasol/Odom/Bynum), Spurs (Duncan), Celtics (KG), Bulls (Noah), Mavs (Dirk). Even Howard in Orlando is an underrated passer out of the post when faced with double teams. Meanwhile, Miami has Bosh – who is primarily a scorer – and slew of other bigs (Dampier, Big Z, Joel Anthony) that are completely reliant on people setting them up to score while offering very limited (or even non-existent) ability to do the same for others.
Until the Heat figure out to be a team that can mold their talent together to become a whole greater than the sum of their parts, I see them falling short of what there potential is. And right now, this is exactly what we’re seeing from this team.
Keys to game: Yesterday we covered some of the motivating factors in this game, so this will strictly be an X’s and O’s approach to what needs to be done to win this game.
Defensively, the Lakers’ new-ish scheme will be fully put to the test by Miami’s personnel. Wade and James are excellent ball handlers in the P&R and will consistently look to turn the corner and attack the paint when they have the ball in their hands. This will put a lot of pressure on Bynum and Gasol to defend the paint while also forcing the Lakers wings to help off shooters to close down driving angles and then spring back to the perimeter to contest shots. Furthermore, the Lakers will have to execute this scheme without fouling as Wade and LeBron are two of the best players at earning trips to the foul line. What I’d like to see is for the Lakers’ bigs to sag off on the P&R and encourage jumpshots from Wade and James and live with the results. If they beat you with 18-20 foot jumpers, tip your cap and move on.
Of course, slowing Wade and James isn’t the only key. Chris Bosh is a very dangerous player and the exact type of rangy big men that the Lakers have struggled with over the years. Bosh is great at popping out for jumpers after setting screens in the P&R and must be respected as a shooter out to 20 feet. The Lakers must decide early if this is a shot they’re comfortable ceding to Bosh as he can be exponentially more disruptive if he’s able to beat defenders off the dribble and attack the rim. The Lakers are all too familiar with this from the Christmas Day game as Bosh worked his mid-range jumper effectively and then used ball fakes and his quick first step to beat defenders to the cup. The Lakers will need to close out on Bosh but do so under control. The last thing the Lakers need is a big man closing hard to perimeter, getting blown by, and the result being Bosh attacking the remaining big man at the rim with only wings and guards rotating down to rebound or offer a second defender.
The Lakers must also be prepared to face added wrinkles that the Heat have been using of late. Even though they’ve lost the games, Miami has effectively started to expand their offense in ways that take advantage of all their perimeter talent. Don’t be surprised to see Wade/James P&R’s or Bibby/James P&R’s in order incorporate defenders into actions they’re not used to defending. Also do not be surprised to see LeBron play some PF when Odom is in the game and force LO to either guard the two time MVP or switch onto another wing player (likely a shooter like Mike Miller or James Jones) to spread out the Laker D and create a vulnerable middle. I’m sure the Lakers have seen all of this on tape in their day off, but seeing it in person with the speed and ability of these players taking hold is quite different than watching it in a film room.
Offensively, the Lakers must continue to work their full offense and not fall into the trap of playing isolation basketball. Granted, Kobe and Pau will work in isolation from the low post, elbow, and short wing but the rest of the Lakers must cut and screen off the ball in order to occupy aggressive wing defenders that have shown the ability to cover a lot of ground when their afforded the opportunity to ball watch against stand still players.
When speaking of player movement, though, that also means Kobe and Pau doing work off the ball in order to better make themselves threats. Run Kobe off screen actions to get him flashing to the ball from the weakside. Run “center opposite” sets to get Pau moving to the ball agasinst Bosh (where Pau can use his size) and Miami’s slower footed defenders to help free him up. Use the built in pin down screens and cross screens off clear out cuts to open up flashes for both of these guys in order to keep the Heat guessing on how the Lakers plan to attack them. Remember, the Heat are a team that thrives off turnovers and predictable sets on O will only lead to their active wings jumping passing lanes and rotating down to help and create steals that lead to easy baskets.
Lastly, the Lakers must control the backboards. Andrew Bynum had a limited role in the Christmas day game, only playing 17 minutes off the bench. In this game, his ability to hit the glass hard (as he’s shown in the last few games) will be a needed ingredient in winning this game. In the last 4 games he’s tallied 20 offensive rebounds and grabbed 57 caroms total and that level activity can tilt this game in LA’s favor. If he, Gasol, and Odom can effitively limit Miami to one shot while also getting the Lakers multiple possessions on the other end, I like LA’s chances a great deal.
Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.