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

pace.

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

22.

“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

mark.

“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.