12:30 pm PST
The road-weary Lakers will take the final stop on their Grammy-induced STAPLES Center exile in South Beach today, with an afternoon bout against the best team in the Eastern Conference. In the cruelest of scheduling quirks, LA faces three of their most difficult matchups in a four-day span at the end of a two week long roadie, including games against the Boston Celtics and the unbelievably tough (literally--it's not believable) Charlotte Bobcats.
The story with the Heat (33-14) begins and ends with LeBron James. Love him or hate him, there's little doubt that he's the greatest player in the league and the single biggest game-changing force on the court. But that's not the bad news for the Lakers; if it's possible, the King has been more dominant in the last week than he has his entire career. In the midst of what should be another MVP season--his fourth, if he indeed notches the trophy--LeBron has thrown up one of the most amazing four game runs for any player in recent memory. Against Toronto, Charlotte, Houston and the Clippers, James is averaging 30.8 points, 6.5 assists and 6.8 rebounds on--don't adjust your screens--.729 shooting, 14.8 shots a game, all while notching a .617 mark from the three point line. These are video game numbers, and unfortunately for the Lakers, they're stumbling right into Bowser's Castle.
Miami's two other All-Stars aren't too shabby either; after a slow start, Dwyane Wade is back to form, scoring 21.7 ppg on 49% shooting the previous month. On the other side of the court, Chris Bosh has enjoyed his most efficient season since joining the Heat, with 54% FG percentage and playing his usual underrated defense.
As a team, the reigning champs have won 9 of 11, quelling a brief lull immediately preceding this run in which the team had gone 4-6. The Heat are playing their best ball of the season, highlighted by their stifling perimeter-based D with crisp rotations, excellent communication on help defense and perhaps the best passing lane defense in the league. This isn't exactly going to be a cherry on the Lakers' road trip-sundae.
LA has played up and down ball on this 7-game slate, despite an excellent 4-2 record.They've blown double digit leads in all four of their wins thus far (not to mention in the Hornets and Thunder games preceding), gotten embarrassed in Boston and of course going down 20 to the immortal Bobcats. Kobe has vacillated between being the facilitator many had asked him to be his whole career and an inefficient 30 shot gunner. Dwight Howard has come in and out with injury, while Pau Gasol could be lost for the season. In the most unpredictable of road trips, is there any reason to think the Lakers can win against one of, if not the best team in the league?
Yes, they can.
The Lakers have a nasty habit of playing up or down to their competition, exemplified by a stirring win against the Thunder two weeks ago, but a humbling loss in Phoenix and near losses in Charlotte and Minnesota. This LA squad is incredibly two-faced; they showed as much Friday night against the Bobcats, going down by 20, but also completely capable of being defensive juggernauts, controlling the pace of the game with their offense and Dwight in the post on D. If they come out of the gates today with any sense of lethargy, there's very little chance LeBron and the Heat will allow the Lakers back into the game. In order to take it to the streaking champs, LA will have to control the boards and break down a usually staunch Miami defense by making long-distance shots.
The Show can win this game. They can win any game. No better test than against the best the NBA has to offer.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino