Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to drive his way around Heat guard Dwyane… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers (17-21) are set to host the Miami Heat (25-12) on Thursday night at Staples Center. After winning two straight against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers have a chance to make a bigger statement against the defending champions.
Pau Gasol is hoping to return from a concussion after missing five games. Earl Clark is questionable with gastroenteritis (stomach flu).
Miami has the best record in the Eastern Conference but has lost six of the last 11.
Coach Mike D'Antoni has switched Kobe Bryant to guard on the ball against an opposing team's best guard. After back-to-back impressive efforts against Kyrie Irving and Brandon Jennings, Bryant is likely to draw Miami's Dwyane Wade.
Wade is averaging 19.9 points a game while shooting 50.4% from the field along with 4.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
Bryant may also get time defensively against LeBron James.
Miami has used players such as Shane Battier, Wade and James to guard Bryant. Battier has been recovering from a hamstring injury.
If Gasol returns, what kind of impact does he make on the Lakers? So far, the team has played well without him, even through three straight losses before two wins. Clark seems to complement Dwight Howard with a younger, more athletic body. Can Howard and Gasol play together and will Gasol's return throw the Lakers off track?
The Heat brought in Ray Allen over the off-season, and he's benefitting from open looks, shooting 43.4% from three-point range.
Other offensive threats include Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Rashard Lewis, Norris Cole and Mike Miller. They don't all put up big numbers nightly but there always seems to be someone unexpected who has a big game against the Lakers.
A win against Miami would help validate the Lakers' recent improvement.
Kobe Bryant recognizes he's better defending on the ball
Steve Blake gets through first practice since abdominal injury
Dwight Howard: Timberwolves' Nikola Pekovic could be MMA champion
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.