Heat-Lakers Preview

After watching the Miami Heat ride their trio of superstars to
last season’s NBA championship, many believed the Los Angeles
Lakers’ pairing of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash with Kobe Bryant
would put them on the same level.

While things haven’t exactly gone as planned, it appears the
Lakers may finally be headed down the right path.

Pau Gasol’s expected return from a concussion should give Los
Angeles a boost as it tries to win three straight for the first
time in over three weeks Thursday night in a much-anticipated
showdown against LeBron James and visiting Miami.

Sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference, much has been
made about the Lakers’ early season woes. After dropping its first
six games of 2013, though, Los Angeles (17-21) has picked up the

Howard had 22 points and 14 rebounds in his first game back
since missing three due to a torn labrum as the Lakers beat
Cleveland 113-93 on Sunday, then posted 31 and 16 two nights later
in a 104-88 win over Milwaukee. Bryant also came up big with 31
points against the Bucks.

Los Angeles, which has won six of its last seven matchups
against East foes, is 7-0 at home when Howard scores at least

“When we play the way we played these last two games, I don’t
see anybody beating us,” Howard said. “The problem is we have to do
it on a consistent basis and not have any lapses during the game.
We’re learning, but stuff like that takes time. … When we stay
focused and we stay together, we’ll be great.”

Hoping to have put their recent struggles behind them, the
Lakers are now eager to see how they stack up against the Heat
(25-12) – especially with Gasol expected to return following a
five-game absence.

Los Angeles had dropped four straight in this series before
pulling out a 93-83 home victory March 4 behind 33 points from
Bryant. Miami has lost six of seven at Staples Center, with its
lone win coming 96-80 on Dec. 25, 2010, thanks to James’ 27 points,
11 rebounds and 10 assists.

“It’s a good measuring stick for us to see how much we’ve
improved since last week, when we played against several top teams
and they all beat us,” Bryant said. “This is a big test with the
defending champs coming to town.”

Miami entered Wednesday having lost three of four on its
six-game road trip before blowing out Golden State 92-75 on what
was a historic night for James.

The three-time league MVP – at 28 years, 17 days – became the
youngest player in NBA history to score 20,000 points, and also
surpassed 5,000 assists, compiling 25 and 10 to go along with seven
boards. Bryant held the previous record, reaching 20,000 points at
29 years, 122 days.

“It means everything,” said James, averaging 30.0 points over
his last six road games against the Lakers. “It means a lot. First
of all, like I continue to say, it means I’ve been able to be
healthy. To be out on the floor and do what I love to do, I love
the game of basketball and I try to give everything to the game.
And hopefully it continues to give back to me.”

James is just the 38th player to reach the 20,000-point

“He’s a special guy,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s a special
player. He’s a once-in-a-generational type of player.”

Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers both chipped in 15 points
Wednesday while Chris Bosh added 11 for Miami, which outscored the
Warriors 22-5 in transition to improve to 9-9 on the road. The Heat
are 15-2 when Chalmers scores at least eight.

James, Wade and Bosh all figure to be well rested Thursday after
sitting out the entire fourth quarter against Golden State. The
Heat are 4-1 in the second of back-to-backs.