The Competition: Miami Heat

With the NBA lockout finally out of the way, The Purple And Gold Blog is back to bring you more Laker news, articles and (soon enough) game previews and recaps! Now, on to the season preview! This is competition #1 in the Eastern Conference.

When the trio in Miami decided to join forces, make no mistake, it’s all about winning titles. Of course, their union have yet to produce a single championship. But take note that they were able to get to the Finals in their first year together.

Still, superstar power and having a fairly young team (even in this shortened season) do not guarantee anything in this league. If last season’s Finals taught Miami anything, unexpected things can happen at the wrong time.

People will always have their creative opinions about Lebron James, but the league will rely on him to keep the torch burning after Kobe Bryant retires. That is if guys like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose don’t beat him to it. If he wants to be the face of the NBA for years to come, Lebron may have to rid himself of his 4th quarter demons and/or become the undisputed go-to guy for the Heat…even if it means stepping over buddy Dwyane Wade.

But just like earning his first ring, changing public perception of himself is a lot easier said than done.

Wade may still be the champion of Heat fans, but James and Chris Bosh are both crucial to what Miami is trying to accomplish starting this new season. Should these 3 ever figure out how to use one another more effectively rather than see each other as options, a dynastic future for the Heat could be within reach.

However, Miami isn’t the only team dreaming of winning a championship next June. And despite what happened to them in the 2nd round last season, the Lakers are still the best team equipped to win it all again this year.

But will their renewed hunger and motivation be enough to reclaim what once belonged to them against the Heat?

Matching Up

POINT GUARDS: The Heat doesn’t rely heavily on the contributions of their point guards offensively since their Big 3 command the ball for much of the game. If the Lakers have gone this far into the playoffs, dealing with any of Miami’s point guard shouldn’t be a huge issue at all. That also means that Derek Fisher and Steve Blake have become better players since we last saw them. Advantage: LAKERS

SHOOTING GUARDS: A lot of people believe that a matchup between Kobe Bryant and Wade is a wash. How is that possible when Kobe is the better scorer and smarter defender? Not to mention that Wade is going up against the only shooting guard today who has won 5 titles and still determined to win as much championship before he says goodbye to the game. Advantage: LAKERS

SMALL FORWARDS: Metta World Peace have yet to prove that he can slow down Lebron. Then again, Lebron still has to prove that his team can rely on him when they need him the most. If Metta steps up his game the way he did against Boston in 2010, this is a matchup Lebron can’t overlook. Advantage: TOSS-UP

POWER FORWARDS: Unlike Dirk Nowitzki, Bosh will be facing a more well-rounded player who has won more than one title in Pau Gasol. Bosh may be quicker and more athletic than Gasol but that’s not enough against him. Advantage: LAKERS

CENTERS: Miami has absolutely nobody who can stop Andrew Bynum from dominating. If the Lakers stick to their offensive identity of letting the post players feast first, Bynum should flourish in this series. If that happens, the Heat will have a huge problem on their hands. Advantage: LAKERS

BENCHES: This is pretty much a contest between 2 of the league’s best backup forwards. Lamar Odom will need to play like he’s going after the Finals MVP award against Miami’s unsung hero Udonis Haslem. Haslem provides the energy and toughness and doesn’t back down against anyone. This is also a series that Blake can’t afford to get shy. The Lakers may not be facing some of the league’s top point guards, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for any of their reserves to sit back and just punch their timecards. Remember, the Lakers are the older team so they’re gonna need as much fresh legs rotating in and out to keep the starters from fizzing out despite what the scoreboards say.

COACHES: Two of the NBA’s youngest head coaches will be testing each other here. But unlike Erik Spoelstra, Brown didn’t need a Big 3 to get to the Finals or win at least 50 games each season. Brown also knows Lebron more than Spoelstra having coached him for 5 seasons. Not to mention that Brown is known for his defense and ability to make a less stellar team perform better than advertised. No doubt this Finals card will be about which team plays better defense. Brown has the mind for it but Spoelstra has youth in his corner. I guess we’ll have to see which one prevails. Advantage: LAKERS

The Series Changers

LAKERS: Andrew Bynum
As I alluded to earlier, Bynum’s dominance will emphatically change the landscape of the Finals in the Lakers’ favor. The caveat there is Bynum’s health. If he’s out of commission, Gasol will be forced to be a workhorse for the Lakers. In a shortened season, it might not be as bad as it sounds. I hope so since we all know what happens when Pau is fatigued.

HEAT: Lebron James
Of Miami’s superfriends, Lebron has the best chance of becoming the biggest factor. If he plays like a juggernaut without much resistance from any defender the Lakers put on him, the Heat will be fired up in a way the Lakers might not be able to contain. Then again, James would need the ball in his hands more than Wade and Bosh combined to be that monster of a scorer. Miami may have more star power than the Lakers, but if Wade and Bosh aren’t as equally part of the team as Lebron, all that “advantages” will be for nothing.

Watch Out For…

Mario Chalmers: This guy doubled his point production and upped his assists average from 2.2 the previous 3 rounds to 3.7 in the Finals. Considering the Lakers will have their hands full against Miami’s best 3 players, Chalmers could very well be the series changer for the Heat if he makes himself troublesome for the purple and gold.

Key Matchup

Kobe Bryant vs. Dwyane Wade: These are the 2 names each team will be relying heavily upon to carry them all the way to the top of the mountain. But between these 2, Bryant is the one who stands to lose more. Another chance to tie Michael Jordan in rings and a smaller window to win another championship. That thought alone just might push Kobe to dominate this duel.

Keys For The Lakers

Health: It won’t matter how much the Lakers want to redeem themselves this season if they don’t have all their biggest weapons against Miami. Having an older team with less superstars usually does that to any team.

Teamwork: How did Dallas win the title at the expense of the Heat last year? You got it! With the Heat expected to have better chemistry this season, it’s even more imperative any team who goes up against them will need to play as one and play for each other. The way the Lakers fell apart last season, there’s understandably more doubt that they can learn to play more as a team than optimism. However, it’s a good bet the Lakers have been playing like a well-oiled machine if they get this far.

Grit: Winning the championship has a lot to do with having an unwavering mental and physical toughness. That’s how the Lakers have gone to 3 of the last 4 Finals, but especially how they got 2 straight titles. Against a team with more than one player capable of dominating any given game and this much firepower, grit is going to be the Lakers’ X factor.

The Outcome

With all the hype and hoopla that’s going to surround this Finals matchup, this is really going to be about what the Lakers can and cannot do. We all know what this team can do when it comes to winning championships. The question is: can they still do it?

If they are able to divide and conquer the Big 3 consistently well throughout this 7-game series while imposing their own strengths against the Heat, the Lakers win. The issue there is can the Lakers keep it up and can Brown find the right answers to whatever problem they run into? Let’s also not overlook the fact that Kobe and Fisher’s leadership will be heavily tested and will have a more profound impact on the Lakers than ever before.

For the Lakers to get to the Finals next June will be a testament to how special this team truly is. I just hope they’re not satisfied until they’re hoisting that O’Brien trophy once again no matter who they face in the Finals.