MIAMI — Well before this season went on the path toward self-destruction, the Lakers would’ve viewed today’s game against the Miami Heat as a possible NBA Finals preview matchup.
How would the Lakers match up defending LeBron James? How would the Heat match up defending Kobe Bryant? Would the Heat have any answer for the lethal Dwight Howard-Steve Nash pick-and-roll combo? Would the Lakers have any answer for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?
These are all pertinent questions leading into the Lakers-Heat game at 12:30 p.m. today at American Airlines Arena. But they come in a different context. A wide disparity persists between the Heat (33-14) and the Lakers (24-27), leaving Kobe Bryant to say the game serves as a “good benchmark” on whether they have any chance in creeping back into the playoffs.
“It’s different obviously — no Jordan [Hill], no Pau [Gasol], Dwight’s not himself yet,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “It’s not quite what people thought as far as Lakers-Heat, but we still have a great challenge and a great chance to go in and try to beat them at their place.”
The Lakers almost did that nearly a month ago. They were tied with 2:32 left only for the Heat to reel off nine unanswered points en route to a 99-90 victory Jan. 17 over the KLakers at Staples Center. That marked the beginning of a four-game losing streak.
The Lakers rebounded, including a signature win 10 days later against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers-Heat game also marks the last contest of their seven-game Grammy trip where they have gone 4-2 thus far. Three of those wins happens, though, before Gasol tore the plantar fascia in his right foot that will sideline him for six to eight weeks The Lakers’ wins against Minnesota, Detroit and Charlotte all represented victories against sub. 500 opponents where they either had to claw back from or hold onto a double-digit lead.
Hence, this game will provide further evidence on whether Lakers’ progress remains as fleeting as the next inevitable soap opera surrounding this team.
“It’s a barometer and shows you where you are and where we aren’t,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They’re doing that every night. We have to do that against Oklahoma City every night. We haven’t been able to sustain that.”
The Lakers will have their hands full trying to prove that against Miami, who have won four consecutive games.
The Lakers have admitted trying to find an identity in several areas.
Howard conceded the pick-and-roll chemistry with Nash remains a work in progress because they’re not prepared to react to how various defenses play them. Bryant remains frustrated that the team doesn’t “play the right way” the whole game because they’re too consumed with their own individual performances. Even if Bryant has taken more of a distributing role lately, he has shown in the past three games more of an eagerness to score when things aren’t working.
Then there’s the Heat’s LeBron James, who has shot 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range. The Heat’s strong supporting cast in Shane Battier and Ray Allen has also made the floor spacing for James much easier to operate. Metta World Peace has slumped lately with his markmanship, but can make up for it by at least making things more difficult for James. Considering the Lakers were close with Miami last time despite conceding 39 points to James, D’Antoni believes concerns goes beyond him.
“You don’t get hooked up onto one guy,” D’Antoni said. “His passing is a little like Kevin Duranst he passes the ball so well. If he gets 40 so be it, keys as to taking 3′s away, closing downt he paint, getting back as fast as you can and turn the ball over. You do that. You’ll have the chance to win.”
And if the Lakers pull that out?
“It’s all relative,” Nash said. “This season’s going to be a disappointment if we don’t win a championship. On the other hand, if you look at what we faced this year, its’ probably unlikely we can find what it takes to win a championship. The key is to plug away and try to get better and you never know what happens int his league and if this team finds a real rhythm and groove at the end of the season, we can be a real tough team. If we can make the playoffs. Anyhting is possible. Relative to what you expected in at offseason when you look on paper.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org