Though the Miami Heat started the season 9-8, a run punctuated with LeBron James(notes) and coach Erik Spoelstra angrily brushing past each other during a tough loss to the Dallas Mavericks, it is clear they are at their low point right now. Miami has suffered through five losses in a row, all of which were nationally televised, marked by a series of missed opportunities in the final minutes.
And though the Lakers were on pace for 72 wins following this season's first month, they are higher than they've ever been. The team followed a swoon before the All-Star break with eight dominant wins coming out of that holiday, with crushing defense and the realization that, holy cow, Andrew Bynum(notes) is going to be pretty beastly for a while.
Thursday night, these two opposite ends of the championship contending spectrum take to battle in Miami. And it's an absolute dream setting for anyone charged with documenting this league because either result will likely end in a go-to, no-bones-about-it storyline to work with. Either the Lakers completely dismiss the wallowing Heat as pretenders, or Miami roars back in a game we could look forward to (or assume to look forward to) months from now as an "it all started back on March 10, when ..." tipping point.
Either outcome, regardless of the regular-season setting, will be worth its weight. So while we wait for tipoff, who has the edge?
If history is any indication? It's the Miami Heat.
Not because of trends. Not because of home-court advantage (as if Miami has any), or regression to the mean (read: the Lakers can't win ‘em all, and the Heat aren't a .000 team). But because, for whatever reason, LeBron James has sort of had Kobe Bryant(notes) and the Lakers' number over the last few years. And though James has played on two different teams with an ever-changing supporting cast, we'd be completely remiss in not pointing out that James' teams have taken down the Lakers five out of the last seven times they've met, since the Lakers' near-championship run in 2007-08.
There are caveats, of course. Both Cleveland Cavalier wins in 2007-08 came against the Lakers as they stood atop the Western Conference, but without Pau Gasol(notes) in tow. And though the Lakers lost by a combined 21 points in two meetings last season, Andrew Bynum was hardly a factor. Chalk that up to injuries, or Shaquille O'Neal's(notes) presence, but neither will be in Bynum's way on Thursday night.
And though the Miami Heat had their way with the Lakers last December, that was in the midst of Miami's best run of the season. Confidence was at a season-long high. Confidence in the second week of March, it's safe to say, is as low as it has ever been.
So does that take us back to the start, and even things out? One would think.
Ron Artest(notes) did well defensively against LeBron James in the December meeting, but James is also about a year removed from dropping 37 points and nine assists on Ron-Ron, while making more than half his shots. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade(notes) effectively (and spectacularly) cancel each other out, and though Chris Bosh(notes) isn't the all-around player Pau Gasol is, he has reached his heights before. This is a huge reach, but Mike Miller(notes) has had the sort of all-around games that Lamar Odom(notes) has come through with in the past, even registering some per-minute rebounding numbers earlier in the year that topped even LO's long arms.
So who's left? Andrew Bynum.
Pointing out that he's averaged just 10.8 points since the All-Star break doesn't tell the whole story. Pointing out that he's averaged 10.9 rebounds over that stretch while playing more than 32 minutes just once helps, but it's not the whole story. Referencing his three blocks per game since the break gets us closer, but come on -- Chris Andersen(notes) gets blocks.
No, it's his impact on Los Angeles' overall defense that defines his recent greatness.
Bynum's long arms, improving hops, burgeoning confidence and active feet have been the biggest part of Los Angeles' astonishing defensive turnaround. The team is allowing just under 95 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break, despite playing good-to-great offensive teams like the Spurs, Hawks (twice), Thunder, Clippers and Trail Blazers. The league-average mark is about 10 points per 100 possessions better than that, and the offenses listed above are routinely working at an above-average mark. Everyone helps, the Lakers have rediscovered their touch on that end, but Bynum is the key.
And though he'll be muscled up by the sort of players who have historically taken Bynum out of games before -- Erick Dampier(notes) and Joel Anthony(notes) -- at some point, talent will have to win out. And with both of these top-heavy teams essentially matching each other at the apex of super-team greatness, it's the guy that hasn't made the All-Star team -- but could someday -- that usually makes the difference.
Since the All-Star break, Andrew Bynum has been that guy. We wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if the Heat take to their end of this 50/50 storyline, and turn that ship around with a win over the Lakers. But if the coin lands on Los Angeles' side, you can be sure that Andrew Bynum will have played a deciding role.