After watching the Miami Heat ride their trio of superstars to last season's NBA championship, many believed the Los Angeles Lakers' pairing of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash with Kobe Bryant would put them on the same level.
While things haven't exactly gone as planned, it appears the Lakers may finally be headed down the right path.
Pau Gasol's expected return from a concussion should give Los Angeles a boost as it tries to win three straight for the first time in over three weeks Thursday night in a much-anticipated showdown against LeBron James and visiting Miami.
Sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference, much has been made about the Lakers' early season woes. After dropping its first six games of 2013, though, Los Angeles (17-21) has picked up the pace.
Howard had 22 points and 14 rebounds in his first game back since missing three due to a torn labrum as the Lakers beat Cleveland 113-93 on Sunday, then posted 31 and 16 two nights later in a 104-88 win over Milwaukee. Bryant also came up big with 31 points against the Bucks.
Los Angeles, which has won six of its last seven matchups against East foes, is 7-0 at home when Howard scores at least 22.
"When we play the way we played these last two games, I don't see anybody beating us," Howard said. "The problem is we have to do it on a consistent basis and not have any lapses during the game. We're learning, but stuff like that takes time. ... When we stay focused and we stay together, we'll be great."
Hoping to have put their recent struggles behind them, the Lakers are now eager to see how they stack up against the Heat (25-12) - especially with Gasol expected to return following a five-game absence.
Los Angeles had dropped four straight in this series before pulling out a 93-83 home victory March 4 behind 33 points from Bryant. Miami has lost six of seven at Staples Center, with its lone win coming 96-80 on Dec. 25, 2010, thanks to James' 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
"It's a good measuring stick for us to see how much we've improved since last week, when we played against several top teams and they all beat us," Bryant said. "This is a big test with the defending champs coming to town."
Miami entered Wednesday having lost three of four on its six-game road trip before blowing out Golden State 92-75 on what was a historic night for James.
The three-time league MVP - at 28 years, 17 days - became the youngest player in NBA history to score 20,000 points, and also surpassed 5,000 assists, compiling 25 and 10 to go along with seven boards. Bryant held the previous record, reaching 20,000 points at 29 years, 122 days.
"It means everything," said James, averaging 30.0 points over his last six road games against the Lakers. "It means a lot. First of all, like I continue to say, it means I've been able to be healthy. To be out on the floor and do what I love to do, I love the game of basketball and I try to give everything to the game. And hopefully it continues to give back to me."
James is just the 38th player to reach the 20,000-point mark.
"He's a special guy," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He's a special player. He's a once-in-a-generational type of player."
Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers both chipped in 15 points Wednesday while Chris Bosh added 11 for Miami, which outscored the Warriors 22-5 in transition to improve to 9-9 on the road. The Heat are 15-2 when Chalmers scores at least eight.
James, Wade and Bosh all figure to be well rested Thursday after sitting out the entire fourth quarter against Golden State. The Heat are 4-1 in the second of back-to-backs.
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