The prevailing tone in response to the Lakers’ last two wins seemed to be “it was only the Cavs and Bucks” by much of Lakers Nation. If you want the Lakers to have any chance at qualifying for the playoffs, then those are precisely the games where a team must “get healthy” and work through their differences. Whether you’re impressed by the opponent, what was significant was the total team defensive effort the Lakers displayed in each game. Kobe Bryant, oft-criticized for his shot selection, is now deservedly being praised for the his defensive efforts on two of the more explosive young guards (Kyrie Irving and Brandon Jennings) in the league.
Perhaps, the most physically imposing playmaker the league has seen, LeBron James, rolls into Staples Center along with his NBA Championship Miami Heat on Thursday. Far be it from me to question what Bryant can do, but it would seemingly be the perfect time for Metta World Peace to embrace the challenge of defending the opposing team’s most dominant force. Prior to the season, MWP made a few waves with bold predictions about the final record, but I was most concerned with his desire to contest for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Obviously, with the defensive struggles this team has experienced, a DPOY award isn’t likely, but that doesn’t mean MWP can’t still have a tremendous impact on that side of the ball, moving forward.
Frontcourt: LeBron James (26 PPG, 6.9 AST, 8.2 REB) may be the most interchangeable player in the league, but unfortunately for Heat fans, he hasn’t been able to remedy some of their concerns with rebounding and interior defense. Chris Bosh is a far better power forward than he gets credit for, but has recently struggled in his role as the primary rim-protector and interior threat.
Much like the case with Kevin Durant, MWP and Earl Clark will be asked to make the night as difficult as they can when defending LeBron James. As daunting a task as it sounds, keeping James out of the lane and limiting his transition points would be a fantastic first step towards a difficult night for Miami. As much as Bosh has struggled against physically imposing big men, he tends to have strong performances against the Lakers, so Mike D’Antoni will have to find a player (or combination of players) to match and exceed his level of activity.
Backcourt: Dwyane Wade’s scoring totals and other statistics may be slightly down, but at 54.2 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc (both career highs), Wade could be in the midst of his most efficient season. Lakers Nation knows, while there has always been a healthy level of professional respect between Wade and Bryant, there has never been much love lost while competing between the lines. I expect Bryant to continue his defensive focus by tackling the primary assignment on Wade.
Even though the Heat don’t run very many (if any) plays for Mario Chalmers, he remains an offensive threat due to the amount of attention teams are forced to pay to Wade, James, and Bosh. Chalmers is averaging 5.2 3-point attempts over his last five games, and shooting 53.8 percent from that distance over that stretch. The Lakers cannot afford to lose Chalmers in transition or in the half-court set, or he and players like Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis can punish a team with slow or non-existent defensive rotations around the perimeter.
Keys To Victory:
Hit The Boards, Meet And Surpass Energy And Effort – With the size/skill of the Lakers, they should be able to dominate most teams in the paint. Against a team that specifically struggles to win the rebounding and interior battle on a regular basis, anything short of a maximum effort to rule the key is unacceptable. The communication on defense has finally shown signs of improvement, as the Lakers have recently been helping-the-helper and finding bodies to box out. Close out on all shooters, and find a way to limit the transition and second-chance offense, and it could be a long night for Miami.
Punish The Heat In The Paint – Spread the court, maintain the spacing, and permit Dwight Howard to work the paint freely, as he did against the Bucks. Howard must be a dominant force on both sides of the ball, and touches/involvement are more important than the total number of shots in the box score. When the Lakers run a majority of their sets from the post or out of the pick-and-roll, defenses are forced to remain honest on weak side players. Proper spacing leads to a more fluid and balanced attack.
Play A Full 48 Minutes Against An Elite Team – We’ve seen the Lakers play excellent an excellent 5-minute stretch, a quarter, and even a spirited half against an elite team. If the Lakers want to be a playoff team, let alone be considered a formidable opponent, they are going to need to stop relying upon the notion of “moral victories” and pick up a home win against a tough team. These are still the defending champions, but the Lakers must find a way to match and exceed their energy for a full 48 minutes…barring overtime.
Miami’s Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Mario Chalmers
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: LeBron James
PF: Udonis Haslem
C: Chris Bosh
G: Ray Allen, F: Shane Battier, F: Rashard Lewis
Miami Heat (24-12) at Los Angeles Lakers (17-21)
7:30 PM PST, January 17, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: Time Warner Sports Network
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)