5 Burning Questions for Miami Heat-LA Lakers Showdown
This isn't your typical post-New Year's matchup of the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference and the 11th-placed team out West.
When the Miami Heat travel to Staples Center for Thursday night's nationally-televised showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers, both teams will hope to answer some of the burning questions surrounding the teams.
The Lakers have been a far cry from the offseason's crowned champions of the Western Conference, but a recent two-game winning streak has given a pulse back to their playoff hopes.
Miami, meanwhile, had dropped three of its past four games, before Wednesday night's 92-75 victory over the Golden State Warriors. Heat star LeBron James became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points in his career during the contest.
Both teams are flawed but may collectively hold the two most talented rosters in the league.
Thursday night's game may shed some light on the direction these clubs are headed.
1. What Should the Lakers Do with Pau Gasol?
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The Lakers finally got some inspired, productive play out of the power forward position.
And it didn't come by way of their 11-year veteran, Pau Gasol.
During Gasol's most recent absence (a five-game sideline stint by way of a concussion suffered in L.A.'s Jan. 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets), reserve Earl Clark did his best to snatch Gasol's starting spot (11.2 points and 10 rebounds per game during that stretch).
Clark's energetic effort may have wowed the team's fanbase, but ultimately it will not keep him from returning to the bench (according to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin). What's worse for Clark (and perhaps Laker fans given Gasol's anemic 2012-13 performance) is that Gasol's return is expected to come on Thursday night (according to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi).
The Lakers need to see a drastic turnaround from Gasol (he's averaged just 12.2 points on 41.6 percent shooting from the field) or finally cut ties with the big man.
And despite his rough start, his prolific career will bring a number of suitors calling L.A. GM Mitch Kupchak.
The real key to the Lakers' season may lie in their ability to patiently wait out presumed low-ball offers and hold on to Gasol until a difference-making player becomes available.
2. Will the Heat Feel Any Lingering Effects of Dwyane Wade-Erik Spoelstra Spat?
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During Monday night's 104-97 loss to the Utah Jazz, Erik Spoelstra elected to ride his reserves and kept Dwyane Wade on the bench for the game's entire fourth quarter.
Wade took the high road following the benching, but he clearly wasn't thrilled with Spoelstra's decision.
Wednesday's performance all but closes the latest tumultuous chapter for the Heat.
But the recent tiff combined with Miami's lethargic play of late (Wednesday night's win was just the third in its past seven games) isn't how this club anticipated its title defense to play out.
All NBA teams have faced adversity, and Spoelstra's move wouldn't have generated the same kind of hype had it occurred from a lesser club. And Miami has proven its ability to withstand turbulence in the past, often responding with the kind of inspired basketball the team showcased in the Bay Area.
Still, the Heat can ill afford much more wear and tear on the seams holding this club together. As defending champions, Miami has a target on its back even bigger than the one it has shouldered since the forming of the James/Wade/Bosh trio in the summer of 2010.
3. Is Dwight Howard Back?
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After a laborious start to his 2012-13 campaign, Howard has shown flashes recently of the dominance he displayed before undergoing back surgery in April 2012.
Granted, the sample size is about as small as they come. But his 26.5 points and 15.0 rebounds over his past two games are a welcome sight for this Lakers team.
With an injury-riddled Howard occupying the paint, the Lakers' backcourt defensive deficiencies proved to great to overcome during the season's early goings.
But with Superman supporting those same guards, suddenly drives are being turned away or simply left unattempted altogether.
Howard's effects on this club aren't just restricted to the defensive end.
If he's able to finish plays above the rim, then coach Mike D'Antoni's pick-and-roll sets became that much harder to stop. When Howard's rolling offensively, he's exhibited a still-developing, yet effective arsenal of moves around the basket.
Kobe Bryant's 29.9 points per game (at 34 years of age, no less) may be one of the more impressive showings in recent memory, but it's not the type of statistic that bodes well for the Lakers' lofty championship aspirations.
4. How Can the Heat Solve Their Rebounding Woes?
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Miami has been atrocious on the glass in 2012-13.
The Heat's 38.6 rebounds per game entering Wednesday's contest was the lowest mark in the entire league. And their minus-3.2 differential on the glass didn't look too much better (sixth worst in the NBA).
While the Lakers have slipped in terms of the win-loss standings, they remain one of the game's elite rebounding teams (45.3 rebounds per game, third best in the league).
A looming matchup with the 7'0" Gasol and 6'11" Dwight Howard could spell disaster for Miami's undersized frontcourt.
James leads Miami with 8.2 rebounds per game but ranks just 29th overall. Bosh has suffered through the worst rebounding season of his career (7.2), leaving him on pace for the third consecutive season with a decline in that area.
Thanks to Spoelstra's positionless approach, Miami's rebounding woes should have been predictable.
But they're also representative of the team's lethargic approach of late. The Heat have rarely shown the championship-caliber defensive intensity that defined their past two seasons. They're being outhustled for loose balls and outmuscled on the interior.
5. Can the Lakers Rebound from Their Sluggish Start?
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The answer is yes, but time is not on their side.
Their 17-21 start leaves the Lakers needing 31 wins in their final 44 games to reach 48 wins, a number that should be enough to punch their playoff ticket.
If that weren't bad enough, the depth of the Western Conference has removed nearly all supposed guaranteed wins from L.A.'s schedule.
Not to mention the fact that they've still got two games (including this one) left with Miami, two left with the Oklahoma City Thunder, two more with their cross-town rivals the Los Angeles Clippers and a slew of games remaining with clubs holding a playoff berth or within striking distance of grabbing one.
The Lakers can't wait for injured players to return. They can't patiently learn the intricacies of D'Antoni's schemes.
Three teams (the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves) stand in the Lakers' way of the final postseason spot out West. L.A.'s sluggish play afforded both Utah and Houston with a three-game cushion over the Lakers.
But with the talent on their roster and some statistics suggesting they've played better than their record suggests (their plus-2.8 scoring differential is eighth best in the NBA), the Lakers haven't yet taken their final breath.