Thursday night’s showdown in South Beach is not Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James.
Not totally. Yes, they are the league’s top two scorers, but LeBron is a game time decision after being sent home sick from shoot around. He’s been fighting a cold for a few days. Either way, you can be sure Kobe is using LeBron as motivation — he uses everything, including the guy who cut his car off on the way to the arena, as motivation — but the outcome will have more to do with how the other eight players on the court step up. And which team has the will to force its style on the other.
It will be hyped as a rivalry, but the Heat and Lakers aren’t even really rivals. There are about 20 teams that think they are the Lakers rivals, and near the same number saying that about the Heat the last few years. But real rivalries are born out of playoff battles. Kobe and LeBron, the Lakers and Heat have never met with anything more than a regular season win on the line.
What Thursday night’s showdown will be is fun. And a measuring stick to a degree, but mostly it will be entertaining. Must-watch television.
There are two two key to this game — Miami’s “big men” versus the long Los Angeles front line; and the Lakers sloppy transition defense against the new up-tempo, chaos theory Heat.
Miami’s goal, even with Dwyane Wade likely sitting out again due to his sprained ankle, is to run. They use pressure defense to create turnovers and misses and then try to get out in transition with LeBron — exactly like what they did in the second half against San Antonio. Miami plays at the second fastest pace in the league (97.6 possessions a game) and has the fourth most efficient offense because of it (105.7 points per 100 possessions). (Stats via Hoopdata.)
The Lakers have been terrible in transition defense this season. If the Heat can push the tempo they can run away with this game in every sense.
How the Lakers can slow this game is in the paint — Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony are no match for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. It is why the Heat may even play Eddy Curry. If the Lakers pound the ball in the paint to their bigs, force the Heat defense to collapse and make them take the ball out of the basket, Los Angeles can get back and set up its defense. When they are set, the length of Bynum and the Lakers front line can make it hard to get to the rim and turn the Heat into half-court jump shooters. Which is how you beat them (and why a zone defense can be effective).
It really comes down to this battle of style and wills — can the Lakers pound the ball inside, can the Heat get out and run. That is what will decide this game.
Well, that and if Kobe or LeBron just go off. That can always happen.