For the first time in three years, the L.A. Lakers will square off against the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.
Unlike the previous Laker/Heat holiday match-ups, this could actually be an early NBA Finals preview, but of course that's what we were sold last year when LeBron James went to L.A. for Christmas wearing a Cavalier uniform.
We all know the story—James put a hurting on Kobe Bryant's Lakers, but the Lakers got the last laugh in June when they were the ones holding the Larry O'Brien a month after the Cavaliers had been knocked out of the second round of the playoffs.
While the Lakers wouldn't exactly mind a repeat of last year given the result, they would probably like to end tomorrow with a W given that this is the first time in the last three years that they've trailed any Western Conference team in the standings at this point in the season.
Here are six ways the Lakers can get back on track in their pursuit of the conference's number one seed and give L.A. the gift of victory.
LeBron James is hands down the best cutter in basketball.
If he’s hit in stride while slashing to the rim and manages to build up to about 60 percent or more of his full speed heading to the rim the strong odds are that he’ll be visiting the charity stripe, the only question is whether he’ll be shooting two free throws or one.
It's when James is getting calls that he’s at his most dangerous. It opens his game, boosts his confidence in his shot and makes Miami that much more hot to handle.
Wade’s scoring methods are very similar. He’s a fairly good jumpshooter with an absolutely explosive game while cutting to the rim and like James, that’s where Wade receives the bulk of his calls.
Scary fact—respectively, James and Wade earn the 2nd and 3rd most free throw attempts in the league. In fact, the combined points the duo averages from free throws are just under 14 a game.
The Lakers must be as physical as possible in guarding both James and Wade, bumping them and doing whatever else is necessary to deny them the opportunity to comfortably execute their cuts in the half court.
Pretty much every turnover the Lakers suffer will translate into breakaway jams for the Heat.
There really isn’t a team in the league equipped to run with Miami if they’re forced into a sloppy turnover-laden horserace.
The Lakers have some athleticism in their bench, but are far from being considered spry.
At 13.9 the Lakers are tied with Milwaukee for the 10th-highest turnover average per game. They won’t want 14 turnovers on Saturday though, unless the Christmas spirit puts them in the mood to give away 28 points.
The Miami Heat are very much a downhill team and once you allow them a spark, you risk a forest fire.
Unfortunately for any team facing the Heat, it doesn’t take much to spark them.
If James or Wade make a few breakaway jams their confidence rises and their shots start to fall.
When that happens it spreads their opposition’s defense tremendously, puts guys out of position and forces more fouls resulting in more free throw attempts.
It’s a lethal domino effect.
When the chips are down Phil Jackson likes spectating. He likes having his team figure out how to deal with whatever problems they encounter on their own. Its one of his endless mind games.
But hey with Jackson’s track record who would dare question him?
Unfortunately, this tactic rarely pays off in the regular season and more often than not a 7-0 run can turn into 14-3 run or 21-6 run.
Many of the Lakers losses this season, none more prevalent than their fourth quarter collapses against Denver and Milwaukee have come from unanswered, extended runs.
If Jackson and the Lakers are serious about winning this game, Jackson can’t get caught up in his long-term tactics. A 7-0 run from the Heat can instantly result in the loss of an entire quarter or worse.
Ever since the beginning of the Lakers’ run in 2008, they’ve always had problems preventing or recovering from opponent runs. In that time frame, they’ve become notorious for giving up big leads or allowing small deficits to snowball into avalanches.
They cannot afford to continue that trend Miami.
Without question, this is the most important match up in the contest for the Lakers.
For once, the Lakers face an elite team without having to worry about Derek Fisher being over-matched, Kobe vs. Dwyane is about as close to a push as the league has to offer between players of their caliber, LeBron is going to win his match up with Artest no matter what and Bynum serves as the X-Factor.
The Lakers’ bench is clearly more talented, yet terribly inconsistent of late and they may or may not rise to the occasion.
There are just too many “definites” in Miami’s favor for the Lakers not to swing as many things as they can in their own.
The good news for the Lakers is that Gasol is more likely to win the match-up than his counterpart given that he’s established himself as a much better defender and rebounder than Bosh and currently averages 11 rebounds to Bosh’s eight and two blocks to Bosh’s .7.
After Gasol established himself as an early MVP candidate in the beginning of the season, he trailed off noticeably, but that can be mostly attributed to the fatigue he suffered as a result of the Lakers’ lack of depth with Andrew Bynum and Theo Ratliff injured.
With Bynum back in the fold, Gasol has re-emerged as the best power forward in the West and the second best in the game behind Amar’e Stoudemire.
Though the offensive skill sets and physical builds of Gasol and Bosh are similar in some respects and near identical in others, Gasol showed more of a killer instinct and a rougher edge in the 2010 Finals than we’ve ever seen from Bosh.
Having said all this, there is little question that Bosh will be the most formidable match up Gasol has been faced with this season.
Bosh has struggled against physical, lengthy front courts all year long up until this point and seemed to be heavily bothered by the Celtics’ defensive pressure and averaged just 11.5 points against them in their two match ups.
Garnett bothered Bosh by contesting almost every shot he put up and the packed, physical paint of the Celtics smothered Bosh on the boards as well. Though he pulled down 15 combined rebounds in the two games, one would hardly have considered him a factor on the glass in either of those games.
If the Lakers' front court can mirror the pressure the Celtics put on Bosh, it’ll go a long way to securing a W.
As we touched on in the previous slide, the Lakers don’t have many match-up advantages in their starting lineup.
Though the Lakers do need Gasol to win his match up, he isn’t likely to dominate it.
One could even argue that the only clear-cut advantage the Lakers have against the Heat is at the center position. People have said that Dwight Howard is the only player in the world capable of destroying the Miami Heat single-handedly, but I’m not so sure.
If Bynum is healthy, he’s as explosive a center as any the NBA has to offer and he certainly has the advantage over Joel Anthony or any other center the Heat employ.
The Lakers would do well to pound the ball with Bynum as early and often as possible not only because he would likely find success against the Heat’s lackluster interior defense, but because his success would likely tempt Bosh to stray from his assignment, further opening things up for Gasol.
Bynum hasn’t been nearly the force he would like to be, spending the strong majority of the season on the sidelines and only scoring in double digits in one of five games since his return.
This is easily the least statistically based slide, but probably the most important.
Ever since the Lakers’ 8-0 run to start the season, and even throughout pockets of that, they have proven that they are still plagued by the mental lapses and apathy that their fans had hoped were firmly in the past.
In actuality, they’re as prevalent as ever.
Literally none of the Lakers eight losses so far have come from a team with a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the title.
Utah and Chicago, the two best teams the Lakers have lost to record-wise won’t likely catch a whiff of their respective Conference Finals and many of the Lakers’ wins have come from games that were much closer than they should have been.
The cherry on top of the dung mound came Tuesday during their disgraceful 19-point loss to the lackluster Milwaukee Bucks.
Given that the Bucks were without their best player and leading scorer Brandon Jennings, they shouldn’t have finished within 10 points of the Lakers.
None of this is to say that the Lakers should be 29-0 or 27-2. The NBA is a highly competitive league in which any team can beat any team on any night.
When you’re the defending champion and everyone guns for you, things are all the more difficult.
The problem isn’t in the Lakers’ somewhat unimpressive 21-8 record, its not even in the occasional lapse.
The problem is that there seems to be no urgency in L.A., no pride.
People are gunning for the Celtics too, and they’ve dealt with a myriad of injuries over the course of the still-early season and that hasn’t stopped them from dominating or showing consistency on both ends of the floor.
Ironically enough, a loss tomorrow could actually motivate the Lakers enough to start caring, but there's no doubt that LA. fans would rather the Lakers care enough to start the winning now rather than later.