In the last installment of the series...
While I'm sure the folks at TNT hope tonight's edition of Lakers vs. Heat (5 pm PT) has a similarly exciting ending, with a game Friday against the Bobcats staring them in the face L.A. hopes to suck enough intrigue from the game to leave Turner execs pining for another Law and Order rerun. The Heat aren't quite Pacers-bad, but they're not good, either. At 30-31, Miami is barely hanging on to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, where any team with matching uniforms qualifies as a postseason contender.
So as much as I love watching Dwyane Wade, what happens tonight is far less about what the Heat do as how the Lakers handle themselves. Here are five things to watch:
Kobe Bryant vs. Wade: Always fun, and always prompting questions of "which Kobe" will show up. Shooting Kobe, Distribution Kobe, Handy Kobe, Grouchy Kobe, Dreamy Kobe, Painter Kobe, or Briany Kobe. (My bad, those last five are actually Smurfs.) No question it's a matchup Kobe enjoys. Coming off a game where he went to the line 15 times and considering his shooting woes of late (36% from the field over the last four games), it makes sense for Kobe to attack rather than rely on rhythm jumpers, whether from the perimeter, the elbow, or low post. It would also force Wade to work defensively, sapping Miami's attack on the other end. He's basically all they have on that side.
Thanks to a pair of strong games, the Lakers have moved back to the top of the heap in defensive efficiency, allowing only 99.2 points per 100 possessions. Miami, even with Wade, doesn't score much, ranking near the league's bottom third in offensive efficiency (103.4). So while the Heat play hard and scrap with the best of 'em, even if the Lakers struggle to score this is absolutely a game able to be won almost purely with good defense.
Don't expect the Heat to do them any favors. Miami takes care of the ball as well as any team in the league, averaging 13.1 turnovers a night, third in the NBA.
In the first go-round back on December 4, the Heat had success late changing their pick-and-roll sets from the traditional guard/big to a more clever guard/guard permutation. It earned them critical points. Will they go back to it again, or perhaps break out a different wrinkle on important possessions? Until Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made the adjustment, the Lakers had done well to limit Wade and keep the Heat on the perimeter. If both happen again, the L.A. will be in very good shape.
Feed. The. Post. Jermaine O'Neal isn't the guy he once was, and behind him there isn't much to deal with L.A.'s length. Udanis Haslem and Joel Anthony are undersized. Jamaal Magloire is covered in dust. Assuming he's healthy, and I'm not exactly sure, because he's Jamaal Magloire and don't I have enough to keep track of already?
One to grow on...
--Defensive Matchups (courtesy of Andy): A newly slim Quentin Richardson has enjoyed a fair amount of success for Miami as their stopper on the wing, and under most circumstances, would be the guy tabbed to slow Kobe Bryant. Only one problem, as we saw during the earlier matchup this season: That would leave Dwyane Wade on Ron Artest, who's considerably too big for the All-Star to handle. Thus, Q takes Ron Ron and Wade checks Kobe, which is obviously not the ideal situation for a team's primary (some might say "only") scoring option.
Kobe may very well return the favor guarding D-Wade (as he did at Staples), but the Lakers could put Ron on Wade, especially now that the 2004 DPOY has lost a few pounds of his own. It's nice to have options, even if they're not exercised.