The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat will square off on Saturday in what is ostensibly a 2020 NBA Finals rematch, but in actuality is unlikely to hold that much emotional resonance. Unlike some previous championship opponents that have bad blood carrying over into the next year, the Lakers aren’t exactly keeping track of Miami’s every move in anticipation of some inevitable future showdown.
“Nothing much is going to go through my head,” said Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma at practice on Friday when asked about the matchup with Miami. “With all due respect, I haven’t seen too much of the Heat this year. But we’re a brand new team and they’re a brand new team too, just from a bird’s eye view of everything. Obviously both teams have some of the same components and some of the same variables as players, but for the most part it’s new guys playing in the rotation.”
He’s not wrong. Of the top 10 Lakers in minutes per game, only five played a significant role in the most recent Finals (a sixth, Talen Horton-Tucker, was on the team, but did not a single minute in the Finals). There is less turnover for the Heat by the same metric — only two players in their top 10 did not play in the Finals for them — but they’ve dealt with a ton of injuries and coronavirus-related absences, and have not established much continuity so far.
That’s part of why the Heat offer such an interesting barometer for the Lakers. Yes, as the Finals showed us, they’re less talented, and yes, they’ve had worse injury and virus luck this season. But if you thought the two-month turnaround has hit the 22-8, second-in-the-West Lakers hard, the Heat are a team that went all the way to the final round of the playoffs and brought a decent chunk of their rotation back, and they’re 12-17, the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference.
So while yes, the Lakers could be better, they could also be a lot worse. It’s perspective worth keeping in mind, especially after a tough loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.
But while they don’t offer much juice from a narrative perspective, the Heat do offer a decent basketball test for a Lakers team looking to avoid a losing streak: Their switchy defense will offer another chance for the purple and gold to practice against that type of scheme, something that head coach Frank Vogel indicated they could use after their defeat against Brooklyn.
“We haven’t played against it a lot with this year’s team,” Vogel said of the Nets’ frequent switching. “We didn’t attack it well enough. There are ways to exploit their switching, we didn’t do it well enough, and we’ll look at the tape tonight and in the film room tomorrow and get better from it.”
The Lakers will have their next chance to do so on Saturday. So even if this game won’t have quite the emotional punch you’d expect from a normal Finals rematch, the chance to see if they can improve on a micro level will make this one worth watching.
Notes and Updates
Dennis Schröder will miss (at least) a second game under the league’s vague designator of “health and safety protocols.” The Lakers say they still have no idea when he’ll return. I wrote about some of the context.
Kuz Have It All
Kyle Kuzma has clearly made an effort to diversify his game this season, whether it’s becoming a 99th percentile isolation defender or, as our own Alex Regla wrote about in his excellent Throwdowns newsletter, hitting the glass harder than ever.
Among forwards who have played in at least 500 minutes this year, NO player is rebounding a higher % of their teammate's misses more than Kyle Kuzma— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) February 19, 2021
For Throwdowns, I wrote about the value of the in-between things, buying a house and getting the damn ballhttps://t.co/QGdhWi72j8
After practice on Saturday, Kuzma gave one of his most candid answers yet on the reason for his newfound focus on the glass.
“I don’t really get the ball as much, so I’ve got to figure out ways to impact things, figure out ways to be on the court,” Kuzma explained. “Obviously I’m a small forward/power forward, and those two positions (on our team) are the two best players in the league, so it’s going to be very scarce out there for me from an offensive standpoint. So for me, I’ve got to figure out ways just to do other things and just not be a zombie on the court like I was a lot last year, standing around.”
Kuzma has delivered on that goal, and has clearly earned more trust from this coaching staff as a result. But while he’ll definitely continue to get more offensive opportunities while Davis is out, for him, he’s not as focused on touches or shots anymore.
“I’m just trying to go out there and just compete, and see where the chips are,” Kuzma said.
In addition to Schröder, the Lakers made a couple of other additions to their injury report, while the Miami Heat will be missing their fair share of guys as well.
Both the Lakers and Heat have fairly lengthy injury reports for tomorrow's game. pic.twitter.com/g44fLxlXCY— NBA Insider Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) February 20, 2021
The Lakers and Heat will tip off at 5:30 p.m. PT at Staples Center. This game will be televised exclusively on ABC.