For the first time this season, the Miami Heat are in a bad spot. They have lost three of their last four and are about to reach the halfway mark of a six-game road trip, most of which is against Western Conference teams.
The team's game against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 12 carries more weight than may initially appear. Though the Heat are the superior team on paper, a loss at Sleep Train Arena would be the team's third straight. Miami has gone 7-8 on the road this year in spite of being the top team in the Eastern Conference, and the fact that a defending champion team with so much talent suddenly has so many flaws is concerning.
Sacramento is on a losing streak of its own. The Kings have lost three straight, and to add insult to injury, news of an impending move to Seattle is starting to become a distraction (h/t CBSSports.com).
They do have an advantage over Miami in center DeMarcus Cousins, as the Heat tend to struggle against teams with solid defensive centers. However, following his flagrant foul against Vince Carter on Jan. 10, Cousins could very well be suspended for this game. That would give Sacramento an almost-zero chance of winning.
Both teams have something to play for, regardless of what happens. Miami wants to get back on the winning track, as does young Sacramento. There could be a lot of fireworks in this game, so fans should be sure to tune in.
Time: Saturday, Jan. 12, 10:00 p.m. EST
TV: Sun Sports, ABC News10
Records: Miami Heat (23-11) vs. Sacramento Kings (13-23)
Betting Line: Not available as of Friday, Jan. 11, 11:26 a.m. EST
Injuries: Shane Battier (hamstring, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Heat Overcome Recent Woes Against Young, Inexperienced Kings?
The Miami Heat may be the defending champions, but have looked like anything but in recent games. Not only were they outmatched by the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers on Jan. 4 and 8, respectively, but they blew a 13-point lead against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 10.
Two of those three losses had a common theme. Against Chicago and Indiana, Miami was outrebounded by a combined margin of 39.
This is because, for the season, Miami ranks second-to-last in rebounding. This may have to do with head coach Erik Spoelstra choosing to start Chris Bosh at center, though he is more of a scoring forward, but the number is unacceptable regardless of who plays the position.
Sacramento does not rank much better in rebounding, at 25th, but their scoring is borderline respectable. The Kings rank 13th in that department, though their inconsistent defense often gets in the way of them succeeding.
All numbers aside, this is Miami's game to lose. The team has much more talent and experience on paper, and needs to take full advantage of the Kings' lack of a veteran leader. If Cousins ends up getting suspended, then the Heat really have no excuse for losing the game.
This game is a perfect opportunity for the Miami of old to come out and play. In spite of the team's road woes, there is really no reason this game should not be won, and handily.
Key Matchup: Dwyane Wade vs. Tyreke Evans
In the event that Cousins is suspended, the Kings' best available player will be Tyreke Evans. He took the team by storm in 2009-10 as a rookie, looking like the dynamic scoring point guard and pest that could get the team back on the right track.
The happiness was short lived. Evans' scoring has dropped in each subsequent season and this year, he is only averaging 14.6 points per game.
Evans has also missed significant time with a knee injury this season, though he looked like his old self in the Kings' game against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 10. The former Memphis Tiger scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting in 32 minutes off the bench, and also had seven rebounds to go with two steals and even three blocked shots.
He'll seek to have just as good a game against a struggling Miami defense, but that means defeating a veteran pest in eight-time All-Star Dwyane Wade.
Wade is having yet another good season in South Beach, even though his 20.7 points per game are his lowest since his rookie year. He is also shooting 50 percent from the field and posting 1.2 steals, showing fans that he is still the dynamic and electrifying athlete they fell in love with 10 years ago.
The man may be 30 and not have as much of a bounce as he used to, but he can still play excellent defense on more inexperienced players. He'll have to do just that against Evans, who is out to prove something after underachieving so badly the past few years.
Evans will look to slash to the hoop, and that will be tough with Wade guarding him. He is taller than his more experienced opponent at 6'6", but does not have as strong of a jump shot compared to most other guards.
This is where Wade has the advantage. While he too can drive the lane well, he can also create his own shot.
Thus, it's going to be interesting to see how both players' defensive skills match up with one another, as the winner of this battle could very well be on the winning team.
X-Factor: Udonis Haslem
The Heat are one of the league's worst rebounding teams, but have a great inside presence in Udonis Haslem. The former Florida Gator has good size at 6'8", 235 pounds, and has averaged 5.2 rebounds in 19.6 minutes per game this season.
Over his last five games, Haslem has averaged 6.6 boards over 24 minutes, and his rebounding ability will be the difference-maker against Sacramento.
Long story short, Erik Spoelstra needs to give Haslem more minutes than usual in this game. As much of an advantage as the Heat may have on paper, there is always the possibility that the Kings can get hot early and take full control. After all, this is the same team that defeated Miami's rival New York Knicks earlier in the season, so the players are capable of pulling off an upset.
Haslem is likely going to start at power forward and be matched up with 6'11" Jason Thompson, who has averaged 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds in just under 30 minutes per contest. He must simply use his experience over his younger opponent to absolutely control the rebounding game in spite of being three inches shorter.
That isn't to say that Miami must have more rebounds than Sacramento by the final buzzer. They just need to keep the margin close from start to finish in order to have a shot at winning.
This means that Haslem must do more than what is usually expected of him and start playing like the team's all-time leading rebounder as opposed to just a role player.
This is Miami's game to lose, and they will not. Sacramento's inexperience and lack of a reliable leader will hurt the Kings, and the Heat will run rampant en route to a blowout.
LeBron James will be back in MVP form after watching his streak of games with at least 20 points break in Portland, and will come close to a triple-double. Chris Bosh will play pesky defense and also stretch the floor, making life for the Kings defense quite difficult.
Who will win?
Tyreke Evans and Dwyane Wade will battle to a near stalemate, but Wade's knack for sinking clutch shots will give him the victory. His younger opponent will put up a respectable effort of his own, but fall short in his failure to make consistent jumpers. The only offense we see from Sacramento will be from Marcus Thornton and, if he plays, DeMarcus Cousins.
Even Udonis Haslem will have an excellent game. In extended playing time, he will reach double figures in the rebounding department and show just why he is one of the league's most underrated defensive players.
Throw in some clutch threes from Ray Allen, and the Heat will have this game in the bag.
Miami Heat 113, Sacramento Kings 94
All statistics in this article are accurate as of January 10, 2013