Showtime: 5:00pm PT
Plot: After a slew of double-digit losses, it looks like the Lakers are making progress. They're 2-3 in their last five games, including a couple of two point, last-second losses in Cleveland and Chicago. I mean, this isn't great in the larger sense of the word "great"...or even the literal sense of the word "great". A 2-3 record is actually not great at all. But for a battered and bruised Lakers team who are trying to keep their season together until the cavalry returns, they can consider 2-3 "great"
Well, that lesson in semantics is going to be tested tonight against the defending champions on their home turf.
The Lakers face the Miami Heat tonight in the fifth game of the Lakers seven game Grammy road trip, which has already been scores more successful than anyone could have predicted. LA took perhaps two more away from STAPLES Center than some thought they might, which of course doesn't include a heartbreaker on Monday against the Bulls, when they lost in completely predictable fashion. The Lakers were dominated on the boards, destroyed by a somewhat anonymous speedy point guard (D.J. Augustin, who went off to the tune of 27 points) and ultimately fell on a defensive breakdown with .9 seconds left on the clock. It was a microcosm of the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers in a single game--extraordinary effort, poor rebounding, decent offensive production, horrible defense that accentuated their opponents' scoring and of course, a loss.
As great as the Lakers were at times in Chicago and the previous two wins in Toronto and Boston, they'll have to be even better against arguably the best team in the league.
The Heat are cruising this year in more ways than one. They have one of the league's three best records at 30-12, though they don't seem to be the same merciless world-beaters that this around time last year went on the NBA's second-longest win streak of all time. Miami is still one of the league's most potent offenses, spearheaded by a sublime LeBron James and the extremely underrated Chris Bosh, along with a defense that's been somewhat lackluster at times this year. After finishing 9th in defensive efficiency in 2012-2013, as well as 5th in points allowed per game, the Heat have slipped slightly to 11th and 8th in those categories, respectively. Even throwing out the statistics, it just looks like Miami is taking it easier game to game, preserving their energy for another big postseason run. The Heat are looking towards June and caring little about any of the preceding months, which of course has led to surprising losses to the Detroit Pistons at home and the pitiful Knicks in Madison Square Garden, as well as extended time off for Dwyane Wade.
Wade has missed the previous three contests and four of the last six, all with knee ailments. He's questionable for tonight's game, an absence the Lakers would be thrilled to see. In their Christmas Day matchup, Wade and James teamed to absolutely toast LA, going for a combined 42/14/11 on 18 for 31 shooting. Bosh contributed 23 points and 11 rebounds of his own, as the Heat pulled away from a (what else?) plucky Lakers team in the fourth quarter to take the game. Though LA made it a game despite having no Kobe Bryant, it felt the entire contest as if Miami was simply playing with their food rather than eating it. It took one swift gulp for the Heat to put the Lake Show away for good.
Tonight's game is only so much of a game as Miami allows it to be. With or without Wade, the reigning champions have more than enough to beat a Lakers squad that is playing much better of late, despite their record. Pau Gasol is the key, as he'll need to beat up on Miami inside for the Lakers to have any shot. The Heat are one of the very worst rebounding teams in the league, making it a rare matchup where LA may be able to compete on that end of the floor. Other than that, all they have to do is contain LeBron James. Simple enough, no?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino