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Lakers Vs. Heat, Christmas Day: Seven Keys To The Game

Schadenfreude travels quickly in the NBA. It was less than a month ago that we were all pointing and laughing at the Miami Heat and their 9-8 record. Anonymous sources inside the Heat organization were sniping at coach Erik Spoelstra, and on his podcast Bill Simmons was, in all seriousness, discussing with Dan LeBatard whether Miami would eventually need to trade away one of their Large Three. A 12-game winning streak has a way of silencing such concerns.

Instead, it's now the Los Angeles Lakers who are inviting ridicule. Since starting the season 8-0, they've gone a rather undominating 13-8. More than a third of the way into the regular season, they boast just three victories against teams in the top half of the league standings. Their laggardly play bottomed out Tuesday night (at least we hope it bottomed out) in a catastrophic 19-point home beatdown at the hooves of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Christmas Day contest will either prolong and deepen these days of woe, or at long last supply a signature win for a Lakers team that desperately needs one. Here are seven questions whose answers will determine how happy is the upcoming holiday.

1.  Can the Lakers actually connect on some threes? Here's how the Lakers' three-point shooting has progressed this season, broken down into (roughly) five-game increments.


Three-Point Accuracy

1 - 5


6 - 10


11 -15


16 - 20


21 - 25


26 - 29


They've gone from being one of the best three-point shooting teams to one of the worst. That's not a promising trend when you're about to face an opponent that leads the league in forcing three-point misses. If the offense is going to function against Miami, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest will need to knock down the open outside looks that will come their way.

2.  Can the Heat control the defensive glass? As a team that doesn't get to the free-throw line much and that's prone to outside shooting slumps, the Lakers depend heavily on crashing the offensive boards and generating second-chance points. Miami has been strong on the defensive glass so far this year, but keeping Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum from playing volleyball at the rim, to say nothing of boxing out Lamar Odom and the hyperkinetic Matt Barnes, will force the Heat bigs to play at their most disciplined and physical.

3.  Speaking of Bynum, how many minutes can he go? Drew still isn't 100% in terms of conditioning and timing, but he's the Lakers' best option for protecting the cup against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and when he and Gasol are on the court at the same time, Miami will struggle with mismatches in the paint. Will Phil Jackson take the reins off and leave Drew on the floor for more than 18 minutes? Will Drew's knee even allow it?

4.  Will Kobe Bryant remember that he has to play defense? Against most opponents, Kobe isn't asked to go max effort on D. That makes sense, and it's not unusual for big shot scorers: you'd generally prefer that they conserve energy for use at the offensive end. But that won't work against the Heat. With Artest fully occupied on LeBron detail, Kobe will have to check Wade without expecting much help. Even when Wade's out of the game, Kobe will need to stay attentive to Miami's three-point shooters. He can't get caught ball-watching or fading off his man to help in the post.

5.  Can the Lakers keep Miami off the free-throw line? This is a strength-on-strength issue. The Heat draw fouls and get to the stripe more than nearly any other team. The Lakers, on the other hand, have long excelled at keeping a lid on opponents' freebies. You never want the refs to exert a big influence on a game's outcome, but in this case it seems inevitable.

6.  Can the Miami bench hold its own against the Lakers'? Though all eyes will be on the headline stars, the game could turn on what happens when the reserve units are on the court, and here the Lakers hold a distinct advantage. The Killer B's have the ability to go on dramatic runs, especially when they're attacking with pace and hitting threes. A Miami second unit that relies on nonentities Juwan Howard and Joel Anthony and that's just beginning to integrate Mike Miller could well get blasted off the court.

7.  It's dark in here... can someone find the switch? The Lakers are great at brushing aside the day-in, day-out worries of their fans and the local media. It's the rightful prerogative of a two-team defending champion. Even if they won't admit it, though, they must sense that their next three games -- after the Heat, they play in San Antonio and New Orleans -- represent an inflection point in their season.

If, say, they drop two of three, they'll be fighting a massive headwind to reestablish home-court advantage in the playoffs. It's barely worth pointing out that the level of play they've demonstrated over the past month isn't going to do the trick. Nothing in December is technically a "must win," but if they don't redouble their effort level and start executing again, starting this Saturday, they'll be making their lives far more difficult down the road.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.