Thursday evening marks the fifth game of this long Grammy road trip and the Lakers are a surprising 2-2. A little defense in the last second against the Bulls and they could have guaranteed themselves a winning record for the trip. As it is they face the defending champions who beat them by six points on Christmas Day. In that game the Lakers played inspired and determined but with very little defensive intensity. Miami shot 51%. They scored 30 points in the second quarter. Lebron had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Wade had 23 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals. Chris Bosh started slow but impacted the game after the first quarter. He ended up with 23 points and 11 rebounds. As for the Lakers, they had trouble making shots. They shot 41%. Nick led them with 20 points but he needed 18 shots to get there. Xavier Henry was efficient, he had 14 points on 62% shooting. Pau had 13 points and 13 rebounds. The Lakers missed 11 free throws. They had 17 turnovers in the loss.
Four weeks have passed since Christmas. The Lakers fortunes have continued to spiral downhill. They lost Jordan Farmar to another torn hamstring and added Kendall Marshall. Despite Kendall averaging 9 assists since he has been with the Lakers his precision with the ball has had little impact on wins and losses. Since Christmas the Lakers have lost ten games. They have won three.
Even though the Heat have a pretty ordinary record of 6-5 in January expect Lebron James to do pretty much whatever he wants on Thursday night. They Lakers do not have a defender with the size, toughness or athleticism to inhibit him in the open court or to defend him when he gets in the post. If he is aggressive in the paint he will either get layups or get to the line. Dwayne Wade has missed the last three games with a sore knee and will not play tonight. Chris Bosh is the forgotten man. He can play on the perimeter and shoot threes or he can create off the dribble and drive to the rim. The Heat depend on the three point shot, they are sixth best and when it is falling they are unbeatable. But when it is not the burden falls upon Lebron to make plays in the paint.
Miami leads the NBA in field goal percentage. The Lakers are 22nd. The Lakers inconsistent shooting puts pressure on their defense which struggles with transition, open court players and half court defense. Their missed shots result in long rebounds and fast breaks. Miami is the worst rebounding team in the NBA and the Lakers, to keep the game close, have to fight for rebounds to give them extra possessions since they are not an accurate shooting team. They will have to limit their turnovers. The Heat are second in steals. Kendall Marshall is going to have to play a smart game. He has a great bounce pass but often uses it with poor offensive spacing creating turnovers. All of Miami’s defenders have quick hands. The Lakers have to take care of the ball otherwise it will be a steady stream of Lebron dunks and layups.
What the Lakers have going for them is that Nick Young has scored 60 points in the past two games. He cannot get off to a slow start like he did on Christmas. The Heat will use Lebron to defend Nick since he is the Lakers best player. This is a game in which Nick is going to have to be versatile, create off the dribble, pump fake, pass to the corner three. Pau has had a very efficient road trip, averaging 22 points on 50% shooting and 12 rebounds. He is going to have to be aggressive and make Chris Bosh defend him.
Miami is going through the doldrums that championship teams muddle their way through in January and February. The Lakers are struggling through a miserable year even as they have had bright spots here and there. Advantage: Miami. They have only lost three games at home. They don’t have to play their best game to win, their talent is an overwhelming edge. The Lakers have no such luxury. They have 15 losses on the road. They have to play an unselfish game while fighting through the adversity of playing in Miami. As Chicago showed, if the Lakers have defensive lapses in key moments then they will leave American Airlines Arena brokenhearted.