The Lakers Could Cool Off the Heat

John Hollinger of ESPN chose the Lakers as one of his biggest losers of the offseason (Insider required), not because of anything they failed to do - in fact, he notes that Matt Barnes and Steve Blake were good additions for the Lakers - no, he chose them as "losers" because of how much ground they lost to the Heat due to The Decision.  When I was in Las Vegas, while the Lakers were still 3:1 to win the 2011 title they were now underdogs to the Heat, who I saw with odds down to 1:1 for the ring.  And just this week analyst Jeff Van Gundy has proclaimed that the Heat are likely to break every NBA wins record this year, from 72 games on the year to even possibly the 33-game win streak mark that has been on the books for 40 years.

But even though the entire basketball world has revolved around Miami since a certain king decided to take his talents there, the Heat should not forget about the two-time defending champs while planning their parade routes.  Because while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are a dramatically over-talented trio against most of the league, there are two teams that can look them eye-to-eye talent-wise that are also built to exploit the Heat's weakness.  And the Lakers are most definitely one of them.

I do agree that the Heat will be regular season juggernauts, very possibly making a run at 73 wins...but if they make it to the Finals and face the Lakers, there are three things that should give them pause.

1) Kobe Bryant and Ron ArtestThe Heat will be able to beat just about everyone purely on the ridiculous skills of LeBron and Wade.  Having two of the best players in the league on one team will hide a lot of warts.  But if you could choose only two wings in the NBA to make their lives miserable, it would be Kobe and Ron-Ron.  Kobe and Wade tend to essentially cancel each other out whenever they match up, and though LeBron is much better than the True Warrior there is NOBODY that actually enjoys playing against Artest.  Artest is in my estimation the only player in the NBA with both the quickness to stay with LeBron on the perimeter and the strength to beat on him in the paint.  Plus, both Kobe and Artest have that little bit of crazy in them...the Lakers should be able to make the wing position match-up a challenge, even against the King and the Flash.

2) Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.  But while the Lakers have at least a reasonable answer to the Heat wings, the Heat have nothing for the Lakers big men.  Chris Bosh is a very skilled power forward, but as yet he has shown no signs of being a dominant defensive player.  And when you match him with Udonis Haslem (rugged, but undersized defender) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (lost any athleticism he had years ago) there is just nothing there to even slow the Lakers bigs.  Meanwhile, all three of the Lakers 7-footers have the length and quickness to not only make Bosh work for his, but also to rotate and form a last line of defense when LeBron and Wade do make it to the rim.  In fact, the Lakers' bigs have such an advantage over the Heat that they alone could win games if Kobe and Artest can just keep the wing match-up respectable.

3) The Pressure.  The Heat have the glare of the spotlight trained squarely upon them, and they have since early July.  They will have to prove and re-prove themselves all season to a basketball world that now loves to hate them.  LeBron chose the route that angered a lot of basketball fans, with the rationale that if he won championships all would be forgiven.  But for that to work, he has to win immediately.  And after leading the teams with the best records in the league in each of the last two seasons only to fall short in the playoffs, LeBron will still be under scrutiny no matter how many regular season games  the Heat win.  On the other hand, the Lakers have no pressure on them.  They have won two straight titles, including their spirit-cleansing defeat of the Celtics in June.  They are certified, no matter what happens this season.  Their key guys are all still young enough for the team to be at its peak, and now they have the luxury of becoming an underdog with little spotlight upon them.

The Lakers are talented, deep, and now newly motivated.  The Heat look to have a great team this year, but they have some big challenges before they get to the finish line (and I haven't even gotten into the Celtics yet).  These Lakers aren't just regular champs...they are probably one of the strongest champions of this milennium.  The Heat, their fans, and even the unattached analysts would do well to remember that.


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