April 4, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first period at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE
This is the big one. Despite the fact that they're not actually the best team in the league, I tend to think of games against the Heat as being a kind of epic battle against some supreme demigod: Superman vs. Darkseid. Cloud vs. Sephiroth. Luke Skywalker vs. Emporer Palpatine. (Note: "David vs. Goliath" is one of the most overused sports analogies, so I'm doing my best to bring in new ones, even if it means nailing three separate nerd categories). Actually, the Heat aren't necessarily worthy of this kind of consideration, but the presence of Lebron James and Dwayne Wade (two of the 5 best players in the NBA) along with Chris Bosh (top 20) makes them seem much more dangerous than the Bulls, who only have one such player, but make up for it with one of the deepest and most versatile rosters in the league, a fantastic coach, and a great system. The fact that we're playing the Heat on their own turf makes the game feel like an even greater challange. Both teams figure to be fairly fresh for tonight's game, with neither playing last night. However, Miami would appear to have even a slight edge in that regard as well, as Memphis is coming off a back-to-back-to-back.
7:30 P.M. ET at American Airlines Arena
Keys to the game:
1. Who wants this more?: Although effort is another overused sportswriter cliche, in this case it could actually play out. The Heat are pretty much locked into the East's 2nd seed and have been in cruise control since the All-Star Break. This lack of focus showed itself when Miami was drubbed by their rivals the Celtics and lost by 19 points in a match which saw LeBron James fail to register an assist for only the second time in his career. The players' response--they pretty much shrugged off the loss--has raised the concern of both their fans and pundits, who question the team's motivation, but the team did settle some of those fears with a strong win over Oklahoma City, the probable Western Conference Champion. While most don't question Memphis' passion, the team has failed to show any kind of consistency since the return of Zach Randolph. As Griffin put it, we tend to play down to our opponents. The upside to this is that the Grizzlies also play up to their competition as well and usually have strong games against the league's premier teams. Further, Memphis is fighting with Dallas and LAC for more favorable seeding in the West, so we should have no lack of motivation going into tonight's contest. Ultimately, this game will be determined by the Heat. Will they come out guns blazing, or will they simply be thinking about June?
2. Homecourt (Dis)advantage: With celebrities becoming a regular courtside fixture, and fans showing up late and leaving early, Miami fans have caught a lot of flack for their lack of support for their team to the point where some have argued that the Heat don't even enjoy an advantage at home. If this proves true tonight, it could favor the Grizzlies. After all, it's much easy playing on neutral ground than it is in hostile territory.
3. Marc Gasol/Rudy Gay: In my last preview (there was even a nifty chart!), I mentioned that Gasol had really been struggling as of late. Although his points per game was in line with his season averages, his efficiency was terrible. As of now, nothing has really changed. Rudy's also played poorly of late, but, unlike Gasol, that was immediately obvious in his averages. More than ever, we really need both to step up if we want to win tonight. In terms of natural talent and athleticism, Rudy is one of the few players in this league who's anywhere close to LeBron's level. He has to step it up tonight. Similarly, Gasol needs to dominate Joel Anthony, who's good defensively, but is a zero on offensive and is physically overmatched by the Spaniard.
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