Kobe Bryant, front, called the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade a "nicer… (Ronald Martinez / Getty…)
Some things to keep an eye on when the Lakers (22-14) host the Miami Heat (28-8) Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
1. The Masked Mamba can have his last word against his supposed non-rival. Of course, we're referring to Kobe Bryant against Dwyane Wade. Bryant has worn a plastic mask ever since Wade's hard foul in last week's All-Star game gave him a concussion, a broken nose and whiplash symptoms in his neck. Bryant and Wade say they remain friends and have cleared the air over the incident. I hardly think Bryant will retaliate physically. But let's not kid ourselves. The two will definitely look to have the last word. Since wearing the mask in the last two games, Bryant has averaged 34.5 points on 51% shooting.
However, it remains to be seen if Bryant can surpass that rate against Miami. In the last three games against the Heat stemming back from last season, Bryant has only averaged 21.66 points on 19% shooting. Shane Battier, who often does play making Bryant make difficult shots, will likely guard him. And Miami ranks fifth overall in opponent's field-goal percentage (42.4%).
2. The Lakers-Heat game should be chippy. Andrew Bynum might profess that he won't deliver a blow to Wade in protest of his hard foul. He's already learned his lesson when he drew a combined six-game suspension when he leveled Minnesota's Michael Beasley and Dallas' J.J. Barea last season. But that doesn't mean his other teammates won't. Matt Barnes already suggested this week that he might. Metta World Peace downplayed the issue, but no one can ever predict what he will do. Bryant won't retaliate against Wade, but he'll surely jaw at him. The Lakers should embrace this physical play, but not allow it to detract from actually playing well.
3. The Lakers must control the tempo. As the Lakers have discovered in previous games against Oklahoma City and Miami, the strategy can only hold up for so long. They can slow the pace down through running half-court sets. They can ensure strong discipline on defensive rotations. They can remain deliberate with their shot selection. The Lakers aren't fundamentally constructed to beat Miami, but the Lakers have no other choice but to follow this strategy. If not, the Heat will just burn the Lakers in the open floor, and the Lakers won't be able to catch up.
4. Will Metta World Peace match up well with LeBron James? Don't look now, but Metta World Peace has actually strung together a few strong performances. Before the All-Star break, World Peace held Portland's Gerald Wallace to seven points on two-of-seven shooting and Dallas' Vince Carter to two second-half points. In the last three games, World Peace has also averaged 10.8 points on 50% shooting. Before Laker fans start thinking the old Ron Artest has emerged, still consider that he had trouble limiting Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, dropping 33 points on a 12-of-22 clip. This game will show if World Peace has truly rounded into form.
5. The game is a good measuring stick. The Lakers have shown slivers of progress, winning seven of their last nine games. But the Lakers still haven't proved themselves among the NBA's elite, going 1-7 against Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Orlando, Indiana and Philadelphia. The Lakers have a good opportunity to do so. Though Miami has won nine of its last 10 games, the Heat have played two games in the last three days. All-Star forward-center Chris Bosh has missed the last two games to attend his grandmother's funeral and remains a game-time decision. (Lakers Coach Mike Brown thinks he'll play). And the Lakers have a 16-2 home record. A signature win like this would give the Lakers a huge confidence boost that they're actually developing enough to remain strong against playoff-contending teams.