Sizing up whether Boston or Miami is more threatening to the Lakers
It's only 29 games into the season, so there's no reason the Lakers should be comparing how their records stack up among Western and Eastern Conference opponents.
"It's still too early," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said.
But the first two months of the NBA regular season has at least given the Lakers enough of a sample size to see who they should worry about the most once the dog days of the season hit in January and February and when the standings race tightens in March and April. The Lakers' (21-8) meeting with Miami (22-9) on Christmas Day marks the beginning of a tougher schedule that will also feature stops at San Antonio (25-4) and New Orleans (17-12) and a monthlong stretch in January when seven of the Lakers' 15 games feature playoff opponents if the season were to end today. So at least from a fan perspective, it doesn't hurt to look at the Lakers-Heat game through a prism of which Eastern Conference team should prove most threatening to the Lakers should they make their fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
"We're going to have to be attentive to all the teams now just so we don't miss out," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson with a smile. "We had a penchant for not losing to teams under 50% with our win-loss record, but we lost that a little bit."
Lakers forward Lamar Odom remained equally vague when he said, "All three of those teams in a series, you never know who could win."
But Jackson and Odom provided enough clues on whom the Lakers have their sights on throughout the rest of the season. Jackson ticked off Boston, Miami, Chicago and Atlanta. Both mentioned Orlando because of its recent trade involving sending Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and a 2011 first-round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark as well as shipping Rashard Lewis to the Washington Wizards for Gilbert Arenas.
"It'll be a fight," Odom summed up.
But the overall sentiment among fans involves Boston or Miami. Below the jump I break down which one would be more threatening to the Lakers.
Team: Boston Celtics
Why they could be the Lakers' main threat in the East: The Celtics are the NBA's hottest team right now with 14 consecutive victories, the league's longest mark since Boston went undefeated for 19 consecutive games in 2008. They've beaten eight teams by double figures during their run. They've closed out four games with a four-point margin of victory or fewer. And Celtics forward Glen Davis has remained consistent, scoring double figures 10 times in the last 11 games.
But Boston's also managed to remain undefeated within the past month for finding ways to fight adversity. The Celtics' 84-80 victory Tuesday over the Philadelphia 76ers featured poor play in the first three quarters, thanks to forward Paul Pierce missing eight of his first 10 shots, Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels combining for three of 13 and the team shooting 42.2% overall. Despite missing 12 of their first 16 field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter, Boston made up for it with timely shots in the last five minutes.
The Lakers always take the Celtics seriously. They are rivals after all. But Boston's dominating success proves a tad surprising simply because they've managed to overcome some significant absences. Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal hasn't played a single minute during the team's 14-game winning streak because of left knee soreness and a recent flu. Boston forward Delonte West served a 10-game suspension and then broke his wrist five games later. Shaquille O'Neal has missed nine games because of knee and calf issues. And Boston has been without Kendrick Perkins since he injured his right knee in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers, though he's expected to be cleared for contact drills within two to three weeks.
Why they might not be:The Lakers share the same problem with Boston. Whether the Lakers three-peat will largely determine to what degree they manage to stay healthy. That's a very difficult thing to predict seven months from now, but it wouldn't be surprising if injuries served as the main reason the Celtics fall short. Despite the team's success, Boston Coach Doc Rivers revealed he doesn't have a good feel for his team simply because it doesn't have a full lineup. Also, winning streaks don't really mean much in December. Case in point, the Celtics reeled off an 11-game winning streak last season only to drop eight of 14 games in January. Rivers doesn't believe that will happen again, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allenand Pierce remaining in good health, but Rivers can't say the same thing of his other players.
Why they could be the Lakers' main threat in the East:
After slogging through an 8-6 start, LeBron James and Chris Bosh complaining about the adversity and constant speculation regarding Erik Spoelstra's job security, the Heat have managed to put all of that behind them by going on a recent 12-game winning streak. Before Miami's 95-83 victory Thursday over the Phoenix Suns, the Heat entered that game with clear statistical discrepancies between the team's first 17 games and the last 13 contests where they went 12-1. Those areas include record (9-8, 12-1), point differential (+5.9, +14), three-point field-goal percentage (36%, 44%), fast break points (13.6, 16.2), rebounding margin (.6, +6.5).
Jackson remarked that the main difference between their road loss Nov. 27 to Dallas and their Monday loss to Dallas pointed to the team's improved chemistry, which accounted for an eight-game winning streak between those games. Miami displayed that against Phoenix, managing to absorb Dwyane Wade's absence because of a sore left knee thanks to increased roles from James (36 points) and Bosh (23 points, 11 rebounds). And the other factor entailed the Heat's league-leading effort on total defense (allowing 91.19 points per game)
It appeared the unfamiliarity and the team's initial failure to withstand adversity would lead to a spiraling mess. But instead it served as a teachable moment for the team's development. The Heat's comfort level will only improve more and more as the season progresses, making them one dangerous team once June hits.
"It's a team we respect," Gasol said of Miami, "and a team we want to beat."
Why they might not be: Miami hasn't really done anything, with 16 of their victories coming against losing teams and having a 0-3 mark against title contenders, including two losses to Boston and a loss to Dallas. The Lakers' bench also proves more consistent and experienced than Miami's. They have supporting cast players in Ron Artest and Matt Barnesto lock down on the likes of James and Wade. And they have the frontline advantage in Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum over Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. The fact that the Heat views the Christmas Day game as more important than the Lakers considers it shows Miami isn't well equipped enough to survive a possible seven-game series. They're too worried about proving they belong among the league's elite, while the Lakers are just worried about the games that matter in the postseason.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant runs the length of the court to join his teammates for a celebration after defeating Paul Pierce (34) and the Boston Celtics, 83-79, on Thursday night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Kevin Garnett and the Celtics are again the top-ranked team in the NBA. Credit: Jason Miller / US Presswire
Photo: Heat guard Dwyane Wade congratulates teammate LeBron James during a 98-96 loss to the Mavericks in Dallas on Monday. Credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters