Kobe Bryant is aching to show that he, and not LeBron James, is the game’s most dominant player in tonight’s game in Miami (8 ET, TNT). And that he can lead the Lakers to another championship without being somewhat overshadowed by Phil Jackson and the triangle offense.
Meanwhile, LeBron wants to prove that he is indeed capable of excelling in clutch situations in big-time games. If this does come to pass (and shoot, and defend), then Miami can stake its claim as overwhelming favorites to win the last game of the season. And with Dwyane Wade unavailable, LBJ will enjoy twice as much ball-time as will Kobe.
HOW THE LAKERS CAN WIN: Matt Barnes provides scrappy, ball-sniping defense against LeBron. As a change of pace, Metta World Peace can defend LBJ with a belligerent physicality. Throw in some judicious double-teams, and James just might be a mite discombobulated.
* Pau Gasol’s long-armed defense will trouble Chris Bosh. When Bosh receives the ball on the right side of the court, his jumper is significantly more accurate and, from there, he also looks to drive right along the baseline. This is when and where he should be two-timed. No such measures need to taken when he sets up on the left side of the court. Also, Gasol can outreach Bosh’s defense in the low-post.
* Since Joel Anthony is no threat to score, Andrew Bynum can ignore him on the defensive end and devote himself to protecting the rim. On the downhill end of the court, Bynum is simply too big and strong for even Anthony’s energetic defense to be effective.
* Even if Derek Fisher wears lead sneakers, he plays excellent position defense, rarely makes mistakes, and is an incredibly dependable shooter in the clutch.
* Early in the game, Kobe Bryant runs off a variety of staggered screens to create space for him to receive the ball at the top of the key. The switches and precise defensive adjustments required might be beyond the immediate capabilities of the Heat—especially because they have only one practice session to come up with an appropriate game plan. Look for Kobe to feast on the resulting mismatches, uncontested jumpers and/or open driving lanes.
* The perpetual hustle of Josh McRoberts will be a factor. In addition, Miami’s will to win could be challenged by the rock-hard fouls he routinely commits.
* The Lakers are in full command of their defensive glass, which will limit Miami’s offense to one-and-done sequences.
* Under Mike Brown’s tutelage, the LAL defense is characterized by quick hands and surprising mobility.
* The Heat’s screen/roll defense is erratic, as are Bosh’s baseline rotations.
* Miami’s offense stagnates when LeBron has his sticky fingers on the ball. Indeed, there are precious few dive-cutters when he’s in his favorite iso-mode. Also, LBJ is mostly interested in throwing assist-possible passes.
* James can also be fouled for profit since his body is never still from his start-up to his release, which is why he tends to miss more free throws than he should.
HOW THE HEAT CAN WIN: If LeBron’s treys and pull-up jumpers are on target, he can’t be defended and the Heat are unbeatable. Period.
* Shane Battier’s rugged defense will give Kobe trouble — especially in the endgame when LAL forgoes the staggered screens and just gets the ball to Bryant in the middle of the court and lets him go one-on-one. In the past, LeBron’s strength and size have also curtailed Kobe’s offense — especially now that Bryant has lost a step.
* Udonis Haslem has the defensive chops to lock up Gasol.
* With Steve Blake injured, Fisher’s backup at the point is Darius Morris, who can be pressured into making rookie mistakes.
* The Lakers’ perimeter defense is faulty, enabling the likes of James Jones, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and even rookie Norris Cole to unleash a barrage of uncontested shots from never-never land.
* Bynum has great hands and not-so-great feet, so his foot-space can be crowded when he gets the ball in the pivot. Moreover, he will always make a reverse move in the low-post. By bringing tight-help to his weakside, Bynum is liable to commit either turnovers or charging fouls.
* MWP has lost a step and also his jump shot. He can be played soft without his doing much damage on offense.
* The Lakers are the league’s worst 3-point shooters, so packing the paint is an excellent strategy.
* Kobe loses concentration when he’s defending off-the-ball, particularly when his man cuts to the rim.
* On LA’s second unit, Bynum is the only player who can create his own shot.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- How often (if ever) will the Lakers resort to the kind of 2-3 zone defense that has repeatedly stalled the Heat’s offense thus far this season?
- Notice how infrequently Gasol receives the ball in the pivot during the second half.
- If Wade does play his ankle will certainly still be sore. Accordingly, will the Lakers set-up screens or offensive tweaks that will force him to guard Kobe in open spaces that make double-teaming too risky?
- Lately, Kobe has been settling for fadeaway jumpers and has therefore been a stranger at the stripe. Will he change tactics and attack the basket?
- If and when they occur, special attention should be paid to any delicious mano-a-mano confrontations between Kobe and LBJ.
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.