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The Miami Heat were supposed to be this super team that was going to dominate the league on their way to a championshp, but that's not the case after an 8-6 start. If they continue to be an average at best team, the only time they will be playing at Staples Center is on Christmas Day. Photo by Jason Lewis
The Lakers will almost surely bring their talents to the Finals, but after the Heat's lackluster start, will they be there? By Michael Brown, Sentinel Sports Writer When the Big Three signed their names on the dotted line this past summer, it was assumed the Miami Heat would eventually sashay its way to the NBA Finals and face the Lakers, but teams in the East are threatening to step-in for a tango with L.A. instead.Fourteen games through the season, it’s clear that the back-to-back champion Lakers are the team to beat. Barring any injuries, the Lakers with 12 wins and two losses, will be the West representative in the Finals.Sure, they’ve dropped games to Denver and Phoenix, but no one believes either team would last beyond five games in a best-of-seven series with the Lakeshow. New Orleans and the resurgent San Antonio Spurs may put a scare into L.A., but like Oklahoma City in last year’s playoffs, both will get handled accordingly. Utah and Oklahoma City have played exceptional at times, but the Lakers’ advantage up-front with Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum when he returns, will overpower both teams and stifle their ability to generate transition baskets.Simply put, apathy is the main challenger to the Lakers in the Western Conference. Further proof of that could be found after a listless home win against Minnesota, when veteran point guard Derek Fisher called the team’s effort “disrespectful.”Mind you, the Lakers were 8-0 at that point. Hell, to put it in perspective, the Clippers are out to a (Donald) sterling 2-12 start, would love to add some “disrespectful” victories. Although hyperbolic, Fisher’s reaction is an example of the Lakers looking for ways to motivate themselves during another tedious NBA season. L.A. fans should get used to this type of shadowboxing being exhibited. A mid-week game at Milwaukee, no offense to the Bucks, isn’t going to inspire many people, let alone a team looking at a 3-peat.That brings us to the Eastern Conference, namely the Heat. Miami, whom many speculated had a shot at beating the Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins in a season, has started the year 8-6, and seemingly has found different ways to lose in each game.The Heat dropped two games to Boston by getting bullied on the boards and being exposed at point guard by the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo. Miami blew more than a 20-point lead at home and lost in overtime to Utah, and Rudy Gay of Memphis hit a buzzer beater for a win.The latest debacle was Nov. 22 when the Heat was embarrassed at home by the mediocre Indiana Pacers, 93-77. Miami’s Dwayne Wade was 1-of-13 shooting, the Heat were out rebounded and its bench was outscored 40-4 by the Pacers reserves.With the free agent signings of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the re-signing of Wade, plenty of Lakers fans thought the South Beach trifecta might be a challenger for the crown.The assumptions made by many of the leagues pundits and commentators led many to believe that the rest of the NBA would just bow out gracefully and anoint the Heat with the Eastern crown.ESPN felt so confident in buying into the hype that its NBA homepage features a “Heat Index,” which includes a countdown section leading up to the Lakers-Heat game on Christmas Day. The game is being advertised as a showcase for the league by its two most high profile squads, but media recognition and reality are where these teams part ways.True, the Lakers and Heat attract casual fans and are led by two transcendent stars in Kobe Bryant and James, respectively, which are adored and move merchandise from Beijing to Brooklyn. Both teams feature second scorers in Gasol and Wade who are both champions and perennial all-stars.But despite the Heat attracting the limelight usually reserved solely for the Lakers, Miami is proving to be more flash than substance and wilting under the pressure while L.A. appears grounded and comfortable with lofty expectations.The gulf exists because the Lakers unlike the Heat were built as a cohesive unit where roles are clearly defined, and players are put into position to succeed. That starts at the top whereas head coach Phil Jackson has two hands full of championship rings; the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra struggles to assert his role as the team’s leader.In fact, it seems inevitable that team president Pat Riley will replace Spoelstra with himself. Remember, Riley during the 2005-06 season replaced Stan Van Gundy after the Heat started 11-10, and coached them to a title. Maybe, Riley will fare better from the bench than as a decision maker in the Heat’s personnel moves because he forgot one major component when he helped assemble the three all-stars: a viable bench.While the Lakers added Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to help solidify its reserves, Miami added players well past their prime such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Mike Miller and Jerry Stackhouse.Miami looks like a watered-down version of James’ Cleveland team last season that often stood around and waited for the “King” to save them, only to watch him defer during crunch time, the time of the game Bryant has added to his legend because of.Bryant leads a Lakers backcourt along with Fisher, who serves as a stabilizing floor leader, something the Heat sorely lack. Miami is stuck with Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers who both are prone to turnovers and lack consistent jump shots.The Lakers’ frontcourt trumps Miami’s which is led by Bosh, a player despite being nearly seven-feet, is more comfortable on the perimeter and facing the basket. The Heat’s leading rebounder, Udonis Haslem, is likely out for the season after being injured at Memphis. Miami responded by signing another aging player Nov. 23, Erick Dampier, to play center.While it’s true that it’s too early to write the Heat off, it’s not too early to acknowledge that the all-star trio are not meshing and are oftentimes lost on the floor with their average teammates.Miami could re-enter the picture by hoping that injured players such as Dampier and Miller return, James and Wade figure out how to both play without the ball together and that Denver decides to rebuild and trade Carmelo Anthony, subsequently making point guard Chauncey Billups available to the Heat. Until then, Boston, Orlando and Chicago will vie to serve as the Lakers’ next dance partner.