Things have been a bit brighter this week in Lakerland. After losing six straight games in what was arguably the toughest stretch in their schedule, the Lakers have won their past two games. While these wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers (Sunday) and the Milwaukee Bucks (Tuesday) should be considered “easy wins” for the Lakers, I think we all know by now that “easy wins” are deceiving this season.
However, while the wins were a must for the Lakers, who have a severe amount of ground to make up in the standings, it was the fashion in which they won these games that made a greater impact. So far this week, there has been an much improved atmosphere of team ball, as the Lakers posted a combined 62 assists in Sunday and Tuesday’s games. Dwight Howard has shown real signs of dominance on both ends of the floor, which has been a result of the Lakers working inside out on offense.
The energy has stepped up, led by the playmaking of Steve Nash and the consistent effort and emergence of Earl Clark. Kobe Bryant has remained Kobe Bryant on the offense, but has dramatically improved his engagement on defense since he is more active with on-ball defense. In fact, Brandon Jennings remarked the following regarding Bryant’s defense after Tuesday night’s game:
“It was probably the best defense somebody’s ever played on me since I’ve been in the league.”
Of course there is still a lot of work to be done with the Lakers in order to keep piling up wins. Yet, after a dark and gloomy two weeks in LalaLand, a winning streak and improved play from the team that had incredibly high expectations this season is hopeful. The next step is to compete and beat an elite, and yes I rhymed on purpose. The battle tonight against the defending champs, the Miami Heat, is not only a game that is highly marketable and attractive to the masses, but as Bryant said:
Kobe on tomorrow’s matchup with Miami: “This is a good measuring stick for us to see how much we’ve improved from last week.” #GoLakers
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 16, 2013
Against the top four teams in the NBA (excluding Miami), the Lakers have gone 0-7 so far this season. To break it down, that is 0-2 against Oklahoma City, 0-2 against the Los Angeles Clippers, 0-2 against San Antonio and 0-1 against Memphis. Despite the recent struggles of the Heat, the Lakers need to win tonight not only to beat an elite team, but to avoid another setback with their recent progress of team defense, chemistry and with their overall mindset.
Prior to the start of the season, I wrote a series on the top competitors for the Lakers in the East and West. In my analysis of the Miami Heat, I wrote of the advantage that the Lakers have over the Heat in regards to their inside presence. The Heat are notably known for have a weakness inside. After they have recently dropped to dead last in the league for rebounding, Miami now ranks as the 29th in the league with a 38.9 per game average. Meanwhile, the Lakers are ranked third with a 45.3 per game average.
The Lakers, led by rebounding machine Dwight Howard, must clean up the glass tonight. Despite the Heat’s low statistics on rebounding, rebounding is about energy, effort and desire. Over the past two games, the Lakers have given up 38 offensive rebounds. That must cleaned up by Dwight and company, despite the Heat only averaging 8.1 offensive boards per night, which ranks last in the NBA.
The Lakers will also be smart to continue running an inside out offense by essentially feeding the ball to Dwight Howard on a consistent level. The defense is drawn in when you play inside out offense, which also opens up a threat for Howard to pass it out to perimeters players like Metta World Peace or Kobe Bryant to do their magic. Then, the defense will have to make a tough decision of where to focus on covering, causing the Lakers to be able to take advantage either way.
Another advantage is that Dwight Howard has every ability to dominate the paint over Chris Bosh, who is struggling to defend in the low post. Over the past two games, Howard has played with more explosiveness on offense, appears to have fresher legs under him and has a new focused (some say more serious) attitude and approach to his game. It doesn’t hurt that Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are continually seeking opportunities for him in the post. A game like this is meant for Dwight to showcase his defensive strengths.
Dwight Howard has performed very well against the Miami Heat over his career. Maybe it was the intrigue of facing an in-state rival (when he was in Orlando) or maybe it was the hype of facing LeBron James and company. Whatever the reason, Howard had historically had some of his best games statistically against the Heat over the past few seasons. The following are Dwight’s stats from last season against Miami, despite playing the majority of the shortened season with his back injury:
2011-2012 Averages Against Miami (four games)
Howard is getting more involved on offense as his chemistry with Steve Nash improves in the pick-and-roll game and as he develops better communication with Kobe Bryant. Let’s not forget that it was initially said that Howard wouldn’t return to the court until January. Even though having Howard suit up for the start of the season was desperately wanted by Laker fans, based on the last couple of performances, he is starting to look like the dominating Dwight fans hoped to see in purple and gold.
The Lakers need a win against an elite team tonight. The Heat will be coming into a hyped and pumped Staples Center on the back end of a back-to-back. The Lakers simply cannot afford anymore moral wins that are losses at the end of the day. They need to begin winning against teams that will make a statement to their critics and the rest of the league by doing so. To do so, they need a dominate Dwight Howard on the floor tonight.