Commentary

Lakers & Heat: State of the unions

Thursday showdown: Can L.A. make a statement? Will Miami play with passion?

Updated: January 16, 2013, 6:26 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst | ESPNLA.com

A few brave (cough), wise souls predicted that the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder would again be the class of their respective conferences. But the majority of us bit on the idea that the Los Angeles Lakers, after the trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash over the summer, would run away with the Western Conference, setting up the long-awaited LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals.

Miracles do happen, although most of the recent ones involving sports happened on ice (Hey, L.A. Kings, we're looking at you), so that dream matchup could still come to pass. But if we're being honest, Thursday's game in Los Angeles between the Heat and Lakers (and another in Miami on February 10) really could be as close as these two teams get to a showdown this year.

The Lakers come in feeling slightly less down on themselves after wins over Cleveland and Milwaukee this week. The Heat come in a little road weary from this exhausting trip and a little irritable as they've gotten stuck in some January doldrums.

Still, whenever these two teams get together, they turn the bright lights on at Staples Center. So we asked ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and ESPNLA.com's Ramona Shelburne to catch us up:

From: Ramona Shelburne
To: Brian Windhorst

I hear the Heat got the day off Tuesday after their loss in Utah. Hopefully you got some time off in San Francisco, too. If you've got time, head to this hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Jackson Street called House of Nanking and order everything that's got the spicy mark next to it. Or rather, send the Heat there. It seems like they need something to get them going. Are they just gassed from this long trip or is this part of the championship hangover we've been hearing about all year?

From: Brian Windhorst
To: Ramona Shelburne

I guess when you're the defending champs you can pull rank and get a day off in San Francisco even when you've lost six of the past 10. Maybe Erik Spoelstra wanted to have a cooling off period after he clearly irked Dwyane Wade Monday night by not playing him in the fourth quarter. Wade put out an odd tweet about taking the high road Tuesday that I can't quite understand, but he wasn't happy after the game.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsLeBron James and the Heat have not always found it easy to maintain a competitive edge so far this season.
The Heat are having some issues right now. But at least they can say they're not the Lakers. I'm no orthopedist, but I've never heard of someone coming back after a week with a torn labrum. This seems to me like it is a semi-serious injury that Dwight's trying to play through like with his back last year. Is anyone worried about it? Also, do I have it right that Pau Gasol has failed six concussion tests in nine days?

From: Ramona Shelburne
To: Brian Windhorst

You're no orthopedist? After all these years of covering the NBA I figured you'd be able to see Howard's "torn labrum" for what it really was: A sprained shoulder that the team calls a tear because every sprain is technically a tear. Now, would Howard have rushed back with this kind of an injury if the Lakers were 21-17 instead of 17-21? Absolutely not. I think it's the kind of injury that he can play with but really shouldn't be because he can make it worse if he gets hit again and the shoulder dislocates. Unfortunately, after their six-game losing streak, the Lakers basically have no room for error anymore and they know it.

As for Gasol, I'm not surprised at all he's being so cautious with this concussion because of his background in medicine. It's such a controversial topic with all the CTE cases and stories coming from the NFL, my first thought when Gasol went down last week is that he'd miss close to two weeks. After the way this season has gone, any time the Lakers put an "at least" before a timetable, it's a red flag.

Wow, am I depressing or what? I just read my response over again and started to feel a little achy myself. Hanging around the Lakers this year kind of does that to you. Feel sorry for me? Or them? I heard that LeBron James doesn't. What was that quote all about last week? If there's anyone who could relate to the pressures of playing on a super team, I thought it'd be the Heat.

From: Brian Windhorst
To: Ramona Shelburne

After what the Heat went through over the last two seasons, especially the 2010-11 season, they harbor no sympathy for teams struggling in the spotlight. In fact, the Lakers are the gift that keeps on giving for Miami. They took a lot of the unwanted preseason hype the Heat got begrudgingly used to take for the past couple of years and, as a bonus, have kept most of the country's casual NBA fans' attention, thereby sparing the Heat scrutiny for their own recent struggles. Chris Bosh ought to be sending flowers after every Lakers' loss. But the Heat have two things going for them. They have the experience with each other to know they can get their acts together and be a potent team when it counts. They also play in the East, where going .500 for two weeks means you might gain ground in the standings. The Lakers don't have such luxuries. There's still more than half the season to go, but you tell me, do the Lakers truly believe they have what it takes to turn it around?

From: Ramona Shelburne
To: Brian Windhorst

Oh they believe it. But they've also had to start considering that it just might not be meant to be this year. It's a staggering thought for a group this talented and well paid. But we helpful media folks have been throwing the harsh numbers at them for a week: The eighth seed in the Western Conference generally checks in with between 46-48 wins. That means the Lakers need to win around 30 of their final 44 games to sneak in there and earn a first-round date with whichever of the three teams -- Oklahoma City, the Clippers or San Antonio -- finishes in first place. Can it be done? A team with Bryant, Nash, Howard and Gasol better be able to win at a 70-percent clip. Will they do it? That's another story. The schedule really isn't on their side. They still have the long Grammy-road trip in February, another one in March, plus the NBA's savvy schedule-makers tend to save the marquee match-ups for after football season when they've got the full attention of the sports world. One thing's for certain, if they can overcome all that to make the playoffs, it will mean that they indeed, did figure it out along the way, and are a dangerous team.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesCan Kobe Bryant continue to deliver offensively while expending energy on defense?
I think this week's talk of moving Bryant into a lead role defensively is a good start. Howard can't keep cleaning up every mess and Kobe, as the leader of this team, might be the only one who can set the right tone. But you just wonder how much more he can really give as he's literally been carrying them offensively all season. If Kobe has to sacrifice some offense for defense, Gasol really has to pick it up. So as you mentioned, the Lakers should provide plenty of cover for the Heat for the foreseeable future. At what point does Miami really get going, though? I've seen Oklahoma City and the Clippers over the last two weeks and those teams seem really hungry. No, starving. Do you think the Heat can find that kind of fire again?

From: Brian Windhorst
To: Ramona Shelburne

Playing in the East has numerous advantages. The Heat aren't getting pushed from behind basically at all. Their motivation to buckle down now, unlike the Lakers, is limited. Not all of their ills are about effort and focus. They've got some big issues like rebounding that they have to address. But their greatest challenge right now is motivation. They played their best last season when they were facing adversity, coming from behind in three straight series to win the title. They haven't sniffed anything like that this season and it shows in the way they're going through the motions. But you have to believe they'll get up for the Lakers. The last time they flipped the intensity switch was on Christmas against the Thunder and this game, despite the Lakers' record, should get them going. It would seem like a big game for the Lakers too. Coming off a few wins, beating the Heat has the potential to give them some traction. Is this their biggest game of the year to this point?

From: Ramona Shelburne
To: Brian Windhorst

Didn't you hear, the Lakers' season started Sunday against Cleveland and they're 2-0 after that statement win over Milwaukee on Tuesday?!?!

I kid, I kid.

About the season starting on Sunday, not about the statement win over Milwaukee. The Bucks came into the game Tuesday with a winning record, making the Lakers an ugly 8-16 now against teams with a .500 record or better. Outside of their Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks, I can't really think of one signature win the Lakers can hang their hat on. Time and time again, they've been faced with so-called "must-win" or "gut-check" games this year and have pretty much come up empty every time. Honestly, except for that win over the Knicks, their most impressive game of the year might actually have been the three-point loss to San Antonio last week on the second night of a back-to-back, and in their second game since losing Howard, Gasol and Jordan Hill on the same day. That was the game where you felt their season could've gone completely off the rails, but they showed great resolve and hustle, got a great game from Earl Clark, and showed a little life.

All that said, you're absolutely right, a win Thursday against Miami would be huge. Who cares if the Heat are in the midst of a dreadful nine-day trip and on the second night of a back-to-back? At this point, the Lakers need something, anything, to get them going anywhere other than the bad place they've been all season.

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