Learning from the low points

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire

Christmas Day went to LeBron James and the Heat, but since the All-Star break Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have caught fire while Miami enters Thursday's game with a five-game losing streak.

The Lakers meet a suffering Miami team Thursday night, but while they won't be hosting any telethons in support, L.A. ought to recognize at least some of the negative energy currently burdening the Heat. Certainly the local media hasn't wanted for "What's wrong with the Lakers?" stories this year.

Both squads have seen their share of success, but as is often the case it's very possible to learn more about each team from the down moments. With that in mind, we joined up with Tom Haberstroh, contributor to ESPN.com's Heat Index (and the NBA page, generally) to compare and contrast each team's low points.

The natures of their struggles reveal a great deal about both the Lakers and Heat, their similarities and differences. I comment on L.A., Tom on Miami, looking at five different categories:


HEAT: On one hand, the Heat posted 96 points on 86 possessions – a very good rate -- against a vastly improved Blazers defense. On the other, it was a two-man effort with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade contributing 69 points. Depending on your viewpoint, the offense is either the least of the Heat’s problems or an uneven trainwreck.

The Big Three will receive the headlines but the losing streak is a team-wide issue. Heat head honcho Pat Riley signed sharpshooters James Jones, Eddie House, Mike Miller and Mike Bibby to stretch the floor and sweeten Miami’s three-pronged attack. During the losing streak, they’ve missed the mark from downtown, shooting 28.2 percent from downtown. It’s particularly troublesome for the Heat considering the margin of error is slim for these specialists. They bring little else to the table.

With barbs being tossed around after Tuesday’s post-game press conference, the Heat’s offense may have reached a tipping point. We’ll learn more on Thursday.

LAKERS: In a lot of ways, the Lakers are the anti-Heat, thriving with balance.

Kobe Bryant will always play a larger role (a more-than-reasonable approach, given his inherent Kobe Bryantness) and greases the wheels for everyone thanks to all the attention he draws. When the Lakers are best, though, even if Bryant ultimately shoots the ball works through multiple teammates hands before reaching him. There is variety in how he gets his shots, and the Lakers utilize the skill sets of Bryant's supporting cast. It certainly was the case in the last two games against San Antonio and Atlanta, where the ball and player movement was top shelf.

For all the hand-wringing this year over the team's defense, when they've slumped the Lakers have just as frequently been betrayed by their offense, particularly on the perimeter. In consecutive losses to Orlando, Charlotte, and Cleveland heading into the break, the Lakers missed forty of fifty three-point attempts.

Bad shooting allows defenses to sag off and pack the lane, clogging lanes to cut and hurting the team's spacing... all of which encourages more outside shooting, and on some nights it's been a major problem.


HEAT: For a short time this season, the Heat enjoyed the top spot on the defensive efficiency leaderboard. Spoelstra’s airtight defensive schemes were defined by sharp rotations and coordinated teamwork. But after the Spurs put on their own 3-point contest and the Blazers circumvented Heat defenders like traffic cones, the defense has looked incredibly vulnerable as of late.

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The long arm of Andrew Bynum has changed the laws around L.A.'s bucket since the break.

It’s not by chance that the Heat’s defensive woes coincided with Bibby’s arrival. The Heat were expected to sustain Bibby’s porous defense with elite defenders behind him but instead, the Heat have hemorrhaged points with him on the floor. In fact, the Heat have allowed 124 points every 100 possessions with Bibby on the court thus far, a full 20 points worse than the Heat’s normal rate.

But Bibby’s not the only issue. Mike Miller has struggled to stay in front of his quicker opponents and has been slow on close-outs, something that was a Heat strong point earlier this season. Spoelstra established the Heat’s identity as a defensive team earlier this season, but the Heat have looked lost on that end of the floor, especially on the perimeter.

LAKERS: The dominance displayed by the Lakers since the All-Star break was born in changes made earlier this season, when led by assistant coach Chuck Person the Lakers tweaked their defensive scheme. Andrew Bynum's duties on the perimeter guarding the pick and roll were lightened. Instead, the Lakers are keeping him in the paint, funneling penetration towards him. Over the last eight games, the results have been great.

The problem, particularly during mediocre (or worse) stretches, was no two games, halves, quarters, or even possessions looked alike for the Lakers on that side of the ball. There was no consistency in the team's defense, and the bad were aesthetically awful, generally involving what appeared to be mid-game layup lines. Indicative of a team struggling to maintain focus and intensity, communication was spotty, rotations muddled and slow.

Add in problems with turnovers and shot selection at the other end- a problem for a team not exactly gangbusters defending in transition- and it's easy to see why the defense failed them.


HEAT: Unlike Phil Jackson, Erik Spoelstra doesn’t have the a handful of rings to anchor his post in times of adversity. Instead, the 40-year-old coach has Riley in his corner.

Spoelstra hasn’t had it easy this season. Between the ego-juggling and outside criticisms, the three-year head coach has had to integrate various pieces into the rotation at staggered times. First it was Dwyane Wade, who was hampered by injuries in the preseason. Then it was Erick Dampier. Then it was Miller. And now it’s Bibby.

The Heat’s rotation is anything but stable this late in the season and that could be a cause for concern. While his lineup experimentation may lead to fruitful discoveries, it also has its drawbacks. Namely, his star Dwyane Wade has publicly questioned why Spoelstra drops players out of the rotation seemingly without warrant (House and Jones).

Spoelstra has had a rocky stretch here, but another win over the Lakers would help calm the storm.

LAKERS: Gravitas has its privileges.

AP Photo/Allen Diaz

Just one of Phil Jackson's 11 rings would come in handy for Erik Spoelstra as he struggles through a horrible week personally, and for his team.

No question, when the Lakers struggled, there were questions about Jackson. Did he still have "it?" Had he, in the last season of a long career, finally lost the ability to communicate with his players? Had the Lakers mined everything from Jackson's tried-and-true blueprint? No coach is perfect, and Jackson did leave himself open to criticism. Some feel Phil did the team a disservice by de-emphasizing the importance of the Christmas Day game, and by whinging about playing in the first place undercut his own team's energy. Others wondered if, with the Lakers struggling to find momentum and consistency, Jackson needed to bust out the iron boot and kick some tail.

But in the end, 11 rings trumps all. Concerns about Phil were, even at their loudest, still very muted, particularly by modern sports standards. Jackson enjoys rarefied air in which no other NBA coach, save Gregg Popovich, lives. He- rightly- received the benefit of the doubt.


HEAT: What was most interesting about Chris Bosh’s complaints about getting the ball wasn’t that he was vocal; it was that he opened up to the media before opening up to his team. Even after Wednesday’s practice, Bosh still hadn’t discussed his in-game issues with LeBron, Wade or Spoelstra, despite his postgame vent after the Blazers lost. Bosh said on Wednesday he planned to address it with his peers before Thursday’s game.

Still, there’s a peculiar separation between Bosh and the other stars. Although we lump the Big Three together by name, it’s clear that there’s a social divide between him and the other two. James and Wade talk to the media side-by-side, kid around in down time on the court together and even casually trade jokes about Bosh’s eccentricity in front of reporters.

Of course, when things are going bad, we tend to make too much of nothing. But these are trying times for the Heat locker room and Bosh’s public assertions aren’t a step in the right direction. But the Big Three aren’t as visibly chummy as one might suspect.

LAKERS: No question, players grew frustrated, but less with each other than their general inability to perform with any sort of consistency. Too often the Lakers simply didn't bring the same level of energy as opponents. Motivation was clearly an issue, understandable given all the basketball they've played over the last three seasons.

Still, there were also plenty of times the Lakers wanted to win and still couldn't make it work. For example, I'm pretty sure they had no interest losing to Cleveland. While they put themselves in a bad position by assuming the Cavs would roll over and play dead from the start, the Lakers certainly cranked up the energy in the second half. But as it was a few other times during the season, they grew frustrated when effort wasn't enough. Instead of improving, at their lowest attempts to raise their level often turned counterproductive. As a team they couldn't meet their vision of themselves.

On the offensive end, ball movement and shot selection suffered. At the other end, the Lakers didn't communicate well. Getting along in the locker room wasn't the issue, but their on-court chemistry was awful. Ultimately, though, what separates them from the Heat is three years of history. The Lakers know what they are, even when it appears otherwise.


HEAT: After the Heat fell behind by nine points with 6:59 left in Tuesday’s game, a strange thing happened: the Heat fans started a chant. That rarely happens in AmericanAirlines Arena. What’s more notable, though, is what they were chanting: “We-Want-Riley.”

It may have been a coincidence, but the Heat consequently muffled the discouraged fans by going on 9-2 run. The good feelings quickly came to an end as the home crowd booed the team in the closing seconds of the game. There’s not of silver lining in a five game losing streak, but the Heat fans are pointing figures at everyone. LeBron is a ball-hog. Bosh is too soft. Wade isn’t taking over. Spoelstra is unqualified. The bench is anemic. Miller has funny-looking hair. It’s getting ugly out there.

The Heat fans were promised championships and lately, they look destined for an early-round exit more than a trophy. The Heat aren’t defending champs, like the Lakers, so the fans don’t have the assurance that this team can pull it together.

LAKERS: The passion of L.A. fans is completely underrated across the league, obscured by the Hollywood image of the team and what can be a very quiet atmosphere at Staples for the average regular season game. (Like the guys on the floor, the faithful sometimes have trouble getting up for the proverbial Tuesday night against Milwaukee.) Take a look at the way the Lakers draw on the road, though, and it's clear love for the team is spread far and wide.

My sense is the large majority of fans weren't willing to jump off the bandwagon. Instead, they were ticked at the inconsistency and perceived lack of effort in a season in which anything less than a title will disappoint.