Records: Lakers 6-1, Heat 6-2
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.7 (16th), Heat 108.1 (12th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 97.9 (1st), Heat 100.7 (4th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Heat: Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Former San Antonio Spurs Stars Last Names Guy,1Duncan Robinson Meyers Leonard, Bam Adebayo
Injuries: Lakers: Rajon Rondo (doubtful), Avery Bradley (questionable); Heat: Justise Winslow (out), Dion Waiters (out), Derrick Jones Jr. (out), KZ Okpala (out)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers have won 6 straight games and just swept a 3 game road trip by beating the Bulls with a 4th quarter comeback after being down double digits nearly the entire game. The team is definitely winning on the strength of its defense, which, as noted in the stats section above, is back to ranking 1st in the NBA.
There really is little to say about these Lakers right now that I’ve not already said at some point during this streak. There are certainly issues that can be addressed and cleaned up. Their offense is not playing to the level of their talent (outside of LeBron and AD), with their long range shooting being of particular concern. They continue to have too many slow starts that put them behind early in games, making them over reliant on 2nd half surges to pull out wins.
They continue to win, though, mostly because they show a resiliency and poise in tough moments and because they have an ability to ramp up their intensity and focus on both sides of the ball to generate extended runs that have turned games in their favor. It remains to be seen if this is a formula they can continue to rely upon or if they’ll start to clean things up enough offensively (while retaining their defensive ceiling) that they won’t have to. For now, though, it’s good to enjoy these wins while simply trying to improve their weaknesses over the course of a long season.
On the injury front, Rondo is not likely to play but is ramping up his activity to inch closer to a return to the lineup. Bradley participated in the non-contact portion of practice on Thursday and is questionable for this game. I have no feel for whether Bradley will play or not. His injury history — especially with leg issues — leads me to think the Lakers medical team might be cautious here and hold him out. That said, his issue was supposedly not serious and he could easily be ready to go. I think they could really use him against the Heat tonight, though, so if he sits it could end up being pretty important.
The Heat coming in: Before the season the Heat were considered by some of the league-wide analysts I respect most to be a team that should be in the mix for the East’s 3rd seed.2Behind the Bucks and the 76ers. Well, after 8 games, the Heat are 6-2 and 2nd in the conference so those people are looking really smart right now.
Jimmy Butler missed the team’s first 3 games for the birth of a child, but is now back and is working his way back into form. In Thursday night’s victory over the Suns, Butler had 34 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists while shooting 11-16 from the floor and 10-10 from the foul line. This was his first real breakout scoring game of the season, but he’s been assisting and defending well in the Heat’s other games since his return so his contributions have been felt in other ways.
Focusing too much on Jimmy, though, would be a disservice to why this team has been as good as it has been to start the year. Kendrick Nunn is a 24 year old rookie who was in the G-League last year. He’s averaging 17 points a game, shooting nearly 40% from 3, and has supplanted veteran Goran Dragic in the starting lineup. Bam Adebayo has seized the starting C position after the team traded Hassan Whiteside and has blossomed into a versatile defensive player who’s showing fantastic feel as ball handler and passer in the Heat’s system while putting up 13 points and grabbing 9 rebounds a night. Rookie Tyler Herro is showing a moxie and fearlessness while proving more than NBA ready as a shooter and competitor and averaging 14 points and 5 rebounds while shooting nearly 40% from distance.
Then there’s Justise Winslow, the aforementioned Dragic, Kelly Olynyk, and Myers Leonard who are all contributing to varying degrees every night to come at teams in waves and just wear them down. The “Heat Culture” of competing hard and playing with a certain intensity and physicality runs up and down this roster and it’s a huge reason they are where they are in these early stages of the season. Credit coach Erik Spoelstra — he’s again getting the most out of the roster available to him and is getting his guys to play to a level that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It really is impressive.
Keys to the game: There are two colliding ideas that leave me wondering which way things could break this game.
On the one hand, the Lakers are riding a win streak, but are playing their first game back at home after a road trip. These are circumstances that could lead to a bit of a letdown game, both from an effort and a concentration standpoint. Teams riding high and transitioning back to home life can be ripe for a letdown. On the other hand, the Heat are closing out their own 3 game road trip in this game and just played last night. While Miami prides itself on being the best conditioned team in the league and always uber competitive, it shouldn’t surprise anyone of they didn’t quite play up to their normal level while showing some signs of mental and physical fatigue.
This all leaves me a bit uncertain and quite interested to see how both teams respond to the circumstances they’re facing.
What I am certain about, though, is that the Lakers would be wise to respect this Heat team in two key areas: 1). they can really shoot the ball and 2). they will be aggressive offensively and will work to get to the FT line.
The Heat are currently 1st in the league in 3-point FG%, shooting 40.5% as a team. They also rank 10th in attempts from distance, so the Lakers better get out to the arc and contest shots or Miami will hurt them. But even when the Lakers contest there, or anywhere else on the floor, they must do so without fouling because the Heat will get to the line and make you pay. They shoot the 3rd most FT’s per game and while they’re only 23rd in overall percentage from the stripe, the last thing the Lakers need is to be in foul trouble early in periods, get into the penalty, and watch as Miami parades to the line.
On a more micro level, I’ll be very interested in seeing how Frank Vogel manages his rotation this game, particularly on the wing defensively. Jimmy Butler isn’t quite as big and strong as Kawhi Leonard, but he plays a similar bruising style as a power-wing player. Butler loves to be physical on offense and will get into a defender’s body in order to muscle him until he gets to his preferred spot to get a shot up. I expect Danny Green to matchup vs. Butler at the start, but I am hopeful Vogel works his subs in a way where Green’s minutes mirror Butler’s so that can happen for most of the game. Green will also need to do his part by defending without fouling, something he’s been up and down with all season.
Lastly, another defensive matchup to watch for is who guards Anthony Davis to start. I expect Adebayo will get the first call in order to be able to switch LeBron/AD pick and rolls more effectively. If that is the case, I hope the Lakers go to more off ball screen actions with LeBron/AD in order to make switching more difficult or to get them in side P&R actions where the help isn’t as easy. For on-ball actions, I’d like to see the Lakers involve Leonard and Olynyk in screens to make them defend LeBron in space on the switch or have to hedge and recover as LeBron looks to turn the corner. I also wouldn’t mind seeing more guard screen actions for LeBron to force switches where Nunn and, if he’s in the game, Dragic end up having to defend LeBron at the elbow in mid-post chances.
Lastly, understand the Lakers win streak isn’t going to last forever. It very well could end tonight against the Heat. When it does end, the Lakers are likely to look bad and some of the issues they’ve overcome in other games will likely be more pronounced and directly lead to the loss. When this happens, I’m preemptively asking you to not overreact. We know the Lakers have flaws and things to work on. The fact they’ve been winning games doesn’t change that. The longterm goal is to try to improve these things over the course of the full season, but that’s not going to happen overnight.
Of course I hope those my call for calm will matter another day and that the Lakers continue streaking tonight. Enjoy the game, ya’ll.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.
*All stats via stats.nba.com