Two NBA powerhouses meet on national television tonight in what has become a great rivalry in recent years.
Granted, the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers are not traditional rivals, but the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James battle adds to its intensity. Both teams have changed over the course of this matchup's history, and tonight's should be even more interesting.
The Lakers, despite having an offseason that saw them acquire both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, have struggled all season long. From Mike Brown's failed Princeton offense to the team struggling to fully adapt to Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced game—not to mention injuries—the Lakers have not been the championship squad the fans hoped they would be.
The Heat's luck has not been as cruel. They remain the top team in the Eastern Conference but have not played with much of a sense of urgency on defense. Now that the Big Three have a championship ring, it's as though the team itself is on autopilot.
That will not be allowed tonight. Thanks to a new defensive approach by star guard Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have won two games in a row by a combined margin of 36 points. By having him in playmaking and defensive mode rather than just scoring points, the Lakers are a more well-rounded team with a more balanced attack.
That is going to be the key to pulling off an upset against Miami, who will be seeking to close out their West Coast road trip with a win.
Time: Thursday, January 17th, 10:30 p.m. EST
Records: Miami Heat (25-12) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (17-21)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, January 17, 10:35 a.m. EST
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, out), Pau Gasol (concussion, expected to play), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Earl Clark (flu, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Is Lakers' New Defensive Approach Enough to Stop Miami?
As was mentioned before, the Heat's defense this season has been subpar. The team ranks sixth in scoring, but 14th in points allowed and second-to-last in rebounding.
This is because when push comes to shove, the Miami Heat are really a one-trick pony. They rely on their Big Three and a group of shooters to overwhelm the opposition on offense, and their defense comes and goes. Since the formation of their deadly trio, Miami has gone from ranking ninth in rebounding to where they are now.
In terms of points allowed, Miami has gone from ranking fourth last season to their current position.
The Lakers rank 26th in points allowed, but fourth in rebounding. Throw in Kobe Bryant's new role as a tough defender, and Miami faces quite an uphill battle tonight. They'll certainly have a shot at keeping pace with Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun game, but what if the Lakers slow them down on offense?
The team's core is fully healthy now, and two consecutive wins following a lengthy losing streak have the adrenaline pumping. Dwight Howard has averaged 26.5 points and 15 rebounds since returning from a shoulder injury, and the rowdy hometown crowd will be cheering the Lakers on tonight.
Unless the Heat can find that sense of defensive urgency, it's going to be a tough game for them at the Staples Center this evening.
Key Matchup: Kobe Bryant vs. Dwyane Wade
Under normal circumstances, the key matchup of this game would be Chris Bosh going up against Dwight Howard in the paint. How those two play against each other will be important tonight, but it does not carry as much weight as Kobe Bryant going up against Dwyane Wade.
Mike D'Antoni has Bryant playing a more focused defensive game, and the two games in which he has employed it have resulted in two Lakers victories. Granted, the wins came against weaker teams in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, but the difference in Bryant's level of effort was noticeable. Rather than just getting the ball and shooting a basket, the five-time champion was also passing the ball, notching six assists in each contest.
The Lakers could really use a similar effort from Bryant tonight. Though he is more experienced than Wade, the Heat's team leader cannot be ignored. Wade is an excellent slasher and has a knack for making hard shots.
On the season, Wade is averaging 19.9 points and shooting an incredible 50 percent from the field. For a guard, that's borderline unheard of.
Wade is also an incredible pest, having averaged 1.8 steals for his career. To go with his defensive approach, Bryant also leads the league in scoring with 29.9 points per game, so slowing him down will be essential.
Similarly, Bryant must force Wade to choose his shots carefully. Yes, the man is great at creating his own shot and sinking seemingly impossible jumpers, but Bryant must ensure that all of Wade's movements are forced tonight.
By taking one of the Heat's key scorers and playmakers out of the game, Bryant gives the Lakers a key opportunity to pull away early. That is, so long as he stays committed to his new approach.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
With Kobe Bryant focused on both scoring and guarding Dwyane Wade, plus Dwight Howard looking to take Chris Bosh to school in the paint, the Lakers need Steve Nash to be at his best tonight. The future Hall-of-Famer and two-time MVP has only appeared in 14 games this year due to fracturing his leg earlier in the season, but has been great since returning to Mike D'Antoni's system.
Nash is averaging 10.5 points and 8.9 assists on the season, and has also been freakishly accurate with his shot. He has made 52 percent of his field goals, something near-unheard of for a guard.
The only mark against Nash this season has been a drop in production from three-point range. A 43-percent shooter from beyond the arc, he has made just a third of his attempts this season and has shot just 18 percent from downtown over his last five games.
Simply put, Nash needs to be his old self tonight. He is getting up there in NBA years at age 38, with 39 just weeks away, but he has still managed to be an effective point guard in spite of that.
He'll have a tough time on offense tonight, what with the ever-pesky Mario Chalmers guarding him, but Nash has a lot of one thing that Chalmers does not: experience. He must use this to drive past the former Kansas Jayhawk and also create his own shot.
Nash may be getting old, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he can still run with the younger bulls and teach them a lesson or two along the way. If he can do just that against Miami tonight, then the Lakers can extend their streak to three games and make the defending champions' road record drop to 9-10.
Based on this season alone, the Heat should have this game in the bag. However, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The game is being played at the Staples Center, home to a rowdy group of fans who love their Lakers. Los Angeles has gone 12-9 at home this year, and Kobe Bryant's new defense gives the team a new attitude. Throw in Miami's struggles on the road and the Lakers' superior rebounding, and you have a game in which the home team wins a close contest that comes down to the wire.
Barring a major defensive outburst from the Heat, this is really the Lakers' game to lose. Fortunately, they will not.
Who will win?
Kobe Bryant will have another excellent scoring night while also putting out a tough defensive effort, forcing Wade to throw up bad shots. Chris Bosh will do his best to keep up with Dwight Howard in the paint, but the three-time Defensive Player of the Year's strength will be just too much for him to handle.
LeBron James will attempt to be the savior for Miami, doing absolutely everything from scoring to rebounding to distribution. Unfortunately for him and his teammates, the Lakers will have too much momentum thanks to their fans cheering them on from start to finish. Steve Nash will be in full pick-and-roll mode, registering a guard's double-double and even sinking a three-pointer or two.
In the end, it will be a clutch shot from the Black Mamba himself that seals the deal for Los Angeles. The Lakers will have then won their third straight game, and the Heat will head back to South Beach figuring out just how to get out of their defensive funk.
Los Angeles Lakers 105, Miami Heat 102
All statistics in this article are accurate as of Wednesday, January 16, 2013