As mano-a-mano matchups go, it doesn't get much better than Kobe Bryant vs. Dwyane Wade.
The return of the Lakers' championship D
Bad news for the Heat: When the Lakers are fully healthy (read: Andrew Bynum), they execute the brand of pressure, ball-side defense that both Boston and Chicago deploy and that gives the Heat fits. Over the past five games, the Lakers have allowed only 94.6 points per 100 possessions. That's astounding, particularly when you consider that stretch included both Oklahoma City and San Antonio. On Tuesday night, 50 of Atlanta's 83 shot attempts came from 16 feet and beyond and it's not like the Hawks were living at the line. Atlanta couldn't poke the ball inside -- neither on penetration nor by feeding the post. Right now, the Lakers' traps have that old zip, while Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are moving with purpose -- dropping back on pick-and-rolls to prevent the drive, and walling off the paint when the ball moves to the sideline. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant seems locked in, while Ron Artest has finally gotten the message that his presence on the wing is vital to what the Lakers do. The Heat have been too easily lured into long jump shots against pressure defenses, a potential hazard that could be compounded by that ol' Lakers length.
A little help, please.
In the Heat's Tuesday night loss to Portland, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined to score 69 of Miami's 96 points. Meanwhile, players not named James and Wade shot a collective 11-for-31 from the field with two free throw attempts. "Bench scoring" is always a deceptively uninformative stat (if your bench is being pummeled in a close game, that usually means your keys guys are slaughtering your opponent's first unit), but the Heat desperately need the supporting cast to knock down shots from the outside, particularly against a Lakers team that will give you a little room on the perimeter while it packs the middle. The Heat were constructed with this strategy in mind: James and Wade will attack the rim. On those occasions when they encounter a collapsing defense, they'll kick the ball out to an open shooter. That's why guys like Mike Miller, James Jones, Eddie House and now Mike Bibby were brought in. But if those guys, along with Mario Chalmers, fail to convert (or, in Jones' case, are not offered the opportunity), the plan goes off the rails.
Keep the Lakers away from the basket
The entire foundation of the triangle offense is enabling offensive players to get the ball close to the basket. Even as the Lakers were getting mauled by the Heat on Christmas, they attempted almost half of their shots at the rim. Credit Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and, yes, Bosh for contesting everything inside -- particularly penetration -- and, just as important, not fouling excessively. It took pinpoint coordination to limit the damage and the Lakers' three big men still combined to shoot 14-for-18 at the rim. If the Lakers have an Achilles' heel offensively, it's their lack of knockdown shooters on the perimeter. As we saw on Christmas, this allows James and Wade to take up one of their favorite pastimes -- buzzing around the court as defensive rovers. When they're selective and assertive about lending help, James and Wade elevate the Heat to one of the best defenses in the league, something we saw on Christmas. But when they're merely hanging out with no real agenda, or overhelping when the Heat already have an interior presence (see Deng, Luol, Feb. 24, 2011), it can cost the Heat. The tandem did it the right way on Christmas and their defensive presence will be needed again on Thursday.
Your move, Chris Bosh
The Heat's talented but distressed power forward picked an interesting time to kvetch about not getting the ball down in the low post. On Thursday night when he calls for the ball down low, he'll encounter one or more of the Lakers' three towering big men. This doesn't have to be a deterrent for Bosh. For one, he is uncommonly good off the dribble when he's near the basket, especially with that pump fake that can deke even the savviest defenders. Second, drawing the Lakers' defense low will open up space across the court or out on the wing for James and Wade. If those guys move off the ball -- and they did a nice job on Tuesday night -- Bosh is capable of making plays out of the post for teammates. He did it routinely in Toronto. It won't be easy, because the Lakers' team defense covers the post as well as any team in the league, but Bosh has the instincts to succeed down there if he's smart and his teammates make themselves easy targets.
The long-awaited pick-and-roll with the three scorers
Lost amid the hand-wringing over the Heat's fifth consecutive loss on Tuesday night was that they performed extremely well on the offensive end for much of the game. They scored 96 points on 86 possessions, good for an offensive efficiency rating of 111.6 -- the best mark against a winning team since they beat Orlando on Feb. 3. For the first time in a long while, we saw combinations of Wade, James and Bosh cooperating in pick-and-roll action. We saw two Wade-James pick-and-rolls in the first half. In both instances, quality defenders like Gerald Wallace, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum were powerless to stop it. Where were the rotators? Good luck beating James to -- or meeting him at -- the rim. Bosh earned one of his few buckets of the night on a beautifully executed slip screen for an and-1 to start the second quarter. As strong opponents begin to sniff out the UCLA cuts and Hawk sets Erik Spoelstra has grown so comfortable with, it might be time to pressure the defense with the tried-and-true concept of combining two lethal scorers into a single action with the ball. Because James rolling off a screen to the bucket -- where he can finish, pass to an open guy whom the rotator left or kick out to a shooter -- might be the most practical way to break down a defense.