Before the start of the 2012-2013 season, the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers were considered the two favorites to represent their respective conferences in the NBA Finals. While the Heat seem to be on their way to a third straight Finals appearance, the Lakers might not even make the playoffs.

L.A. enters Thursday with a 17-21 record, putting them three games out of a postseason berth. Miami is 25-12 with a one-game lead on the New York Knicks for the best record in the East.

Now, the two teams will meet for the first time this year. The Heat are set to visit the Lakers on Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on TNT, and can be seen on a free live stream online with TNT Overtime.

One of the biggest reasons for the Lakers struggles has been injuries. Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash have missed 40 games combined. L.A.’s game against Miami could be one of the few times all year that Los Angeles’s full complement of stars is healthy at the same time.

Gasol is expected to play for the first time since Jan.6 against the Denver Nuggets. The seven-footer has been held out of the lineup with a concussion, and has finally been cleared to play.

Even though Gasol is ready to take the floor, he won’t be reinserted into the starting lineup right away. For the first time in his Laker career, Gasol will come off the bench, as the club monitors his minutes upon his return. The move isn’t expected to be permanent, and he could be on the floor for tip-off in the team’s game on Sunday.

Having Gasol back in the lineup will only help the advantage that the Lakers will have on the boards. They are fourth in the league in rebounds per game, while the Heat are just one spot away from being at the bottom of the league in that category.

Miami’s troubles rebounding the ball have finally started to result in losses. The team has struggled of late, falling in four of their last seven contests. In the Heat’s most recent loss, the Utah Jazz outrebounded them by 17.

The Heat won their last game, though, as LeBron James achieved multiple milestones. He became the youngest player to score 20,000 points, and also recorded his 5,000th career assist.

Even though Dwyane Wade hasn’t had one of his better seasons, James has kept Miami atop the Eastern Conference. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Just as James has carried the Heat, Kobe Bryant has done his best to keep Lakers afloat in most of their games. He leads all players with 29.9 points per game, and has done so on 47.8 percent shooting from the field.

Despite the Heat having eight more wins through the first half of the season, the Lakers enter the contest as favorites. The betting line at most Las Vegas casinos has Miami as two-point underdogs.

Los Angeles might have trouble with the more athletic Heat. L.A.’s biggest issue has been stopping the opposition in transition, and the combination of James and Wade makes Miami the most dangerous team in the open floor.

The Lakers best chance is to slow the game down, and dominate the paint. Miami often plays a small lineup, and will have a difficult time containing Gasol and Howard down low.

However, L.A. has been burned too many times this season by athletics players. They’ll likely lose to the team with the most athletic player in basketball.

Prediction: Miami 109, Los Angeles 101