Miami wants Christmas in March.
The Heat’s Christmas Day beat down of the Lakers was their signature win of the season. A few months later the Heat are just desperate for any win. Getting one against the Lakers would be that much more sweet.
But to the dismay of the Heat and four-year-olds everywhere, Christmas doesn’t come again in March. This is going to be very different. The weather is warmer, Santa is nowhere to be seen and these are two different teams. The Lakers have found their defensive identity, and with that look the contenders we expected. The Heat are still trying to find their identity, particularly at the end of games.
How is it going to be different? Here are five things to look for:
Miami and the midrange. Back on Christmas, Dwyane Wade abused the Laker big men on the pick-and-roll. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol would try to show out hard and cut Wade off from driving, or the Lakers would try to double and trap him. Wade just split the double and got to the hoop.
Now, the Lakers are playing their pick-and-roll defense a little differently. Los Angeles bigs are laying back off the pick, using those long arms and big bodies to clog the paint, cut off driving lanes and daring you to take the midrange jumper.
Wade and LeBron James can fall in love with the midrange. Too easily. Some games they knock that down consistently, some games they miss plenty, but keep shooting anyway. Whether the shots fall or not, know the Lakers are not going to let Wade waltz into the paint again.
Miami’s lessons from Chicago. The Lakers pick-and-roll defense now ties into their overall defensive strategy. When the ball goes to the wing they bring a big man over to the strong side early and overload. They take away penetration and defend the three point line. Again, they dare you to beat them from the midrange, the most inefficient shot in basketball.
That is pretty much what the Bulls did two weeks ago in beating the Heat. It is what the Celtics have done to Miami all season. And the Heat have struggled against those teams. The Lakers — when Andrew Bynum is healthy and they give a crap — play a similar style of defense. Bad news for the Heat — Bynum is healthy and the Lakers have been focused. Have the Heat adjusted.
Can Miami defend the paint? The Heat can play defense, too, they just haven’t done it as consistently lately. They need to again Thursday and do it like they did on Christmas Day, specifically.
In that game the Lakers made a point to get the ball inside but the Heat big men — Erik Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas mostly, with a sprinkling of Chris Bosh — did a good job contesting shots at the rim. The Lakers struggled against that and missed a lot of shots close to the rim. And that fueled some easy transition points for the Heat. Miami needs to defend like that again because you can be sure the Lakers will try to establish themselves inside again.
Tempo. Miami will destroy the Lakers in transition. But pretty much every team that has played the Heat in the past two weeks has shown that if you can slow it down and make it a half-court game you can stall out the Heat offense.
Miami needs to force turnovers and missed shots, then use those to get out and run. The Lakers need take care of the ball and use their offensive rebounding — their insane length — to hit the offensive boards and thereby slow the Heat running.
Kobe Bryant, facilitator. The Lakers need to make shots and establish themselves inside. That happens when the Lakers get facilitator Kobe. Turnovers and missed shots, with the team out of position in the offense, is what you get when Kobe breaks out of the offense and goes rogue. Which Kobe shows up early will have a big say in this game.