While the supposed feud between guard Kobe Bryant and center Dwight Howard continues to fuel news about the Los Angeles Lakers, the team has quietly put together their best stretch of the season.
The Lakers have gone 7-2 in their last nine games, and can make a strong statement Sunday afternoon as the meet the East-leading Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Lakers will be hard pressed to topple the defending champions and their 21-3 home record. The Heat have won four straight, including three at home, and Friday’s 111-89 blowout of the L.A. Clippers.
LeBron James filled the stat sheet once again with 30 points, five rebounds, and six assists. Guard Dwyane Wade netted 20 points to go along with seven assists and four steals, while Ray Allen and Chris Bosh were sidelined with flu-like symptoms.
As a team, the Heat shot almost 53 percent from the field, and despite Allen’s absence, knocked down 15 three pointers. James and forward Shane Battier each went 4-for-5 from beyond the arc.
Like Miami, the Lakers know how to flex their scoring muscles, but are asking less from their superstar.
Bryant appears to have put his chances for a third career scoring title on the backburner. Over L.A.’s last 10 games, the 34-year-old has averaged 19.8 points and 7.6 assists, acting as more of a facilitator. Bryant is still third in the NBA in scoring at 27.4 per contest, but has taken 15 or less shots in six of L.A.'s last nine games, for a 5-1 record. For the season, Bryant is averaging 21 shots per game.
Still, the loss of Pau Gasol for upwards of six weeks with a foot injury could force Bryant back into the primary scoring role. Gasol had moved past his early season woes, averaging 20 points and eight rebounds in three games in February.
The loss of Gasol also places more pressure on Howard, who may have to play through the rest of the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Howard stepped up in L.A’s 100-93 win over the Charlotte Bobcats Friday, scoring 17 points and grabbing 11 rebounds with three blocks in 38 minutes. Bryant tallied 20 points and eight assists.
The Heat are currently last in the NBA in rebounding, giving Howard the opportunity to dominate the paint Sunday.
Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. eastern time and will be broadcast by ABC.
Betting Odds: Miami is favored by 8 points
Over/Under: 204 points
Prediction: L.A. won’t be able to stop James, but must force the rest of the Heat into bad shots. Howard can prove himself as a Laker and silence any critics with a monster game. Look for Howard and Bryant to bury their alleged issues, and carry L.A. to their biggest win of the year.
Predicted Score: Los Angeles 104, Miami 99