After winning the NBA title only last season and having what was considered one of the most successful offseasons in the league, the Heat have begun to flounder a bit.
New Orleans has experienced its own heavy dose of losing as well and are also in the middle of a two-game skid. Though the Hornets don't have a roster—or health bill—that screams competence. Five wins in 18 tries isn't quite what they had in mind.
Can the Heat get back on track by putting away an inferior opponent for the first time in three tries? Or will it be the Hornets who begin to define themselves by becoming the third consecutive team to upset the reigning NBA champs?
Let's find out.
Times: Saturday, December 7, 7:30 p.m. ET
Records: Miami Heat (12-5) vs. New Orleans Hornets (5-13)
Betting Line: Heat -14
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Hornets: Anthony Davis (ankle, out); Eric Gordon (knee/quad, out)
Key Storyline: Can the Heat avoid a third straight collapse?
Despite having a 12-5 record, the Heat have not appeared to be the dominant entity we have come to know.
Miami has dropped two straight games that, on paper, should have been easy wins. The near San Antonio disaster is still fresh in the minds of everyone as well.
Yet again, though, the Heat have a chance to redeem themselves against a team in a much worse state than they are.
First, there were the docile Wizards, then the Anthony-less Knicks. But the Heat failed to capitalize off such favorable matchups, wasting monstrous performances by LeBron James in both instances.
Where Miami failed the first two times, though, it will look to finally regain its footing at home against a a team in New Orleans with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
If the Heat can play an uptempo offensive game while playing adequate perimeter defense, they should have no problem leaving South Beach with a victory.
Should James and crew stumble yet again, however, then they'll have plenty of doubters ready to hurl fiercely negative narratives their way.
Key Matchup: LeBron James, F, Heat vs. Ryan Anderson, F Hornets
With both Davis and Gordon on the shelf, New Orleans doesn't have anyone on the court that could theoretically torch the Heat.
Miami is allowing 27.5 points from beyond arc thus far, the second-worst mark in the league. Anderson is attempting 7.7 threes per game and connecting on a career-best 43.5 percent of them, which doesn't bode well for the Heat.
Despite Miami's defensive shortcomings on the perimeter, though, James remains one of the best defenders in the game. He's deft at contesting shots, and his quickness will make it tough for Anderson to take him off the dribble.
That said, James does has to be wary of his help defense. He is often tasked with lending a hand near the rim when a slasher breaks free.
If no one rotates over to LeBron's man, though, that will result in a plethora of wide open threes for Anderson.
Other than that, James should have no real concerns in this one. He should be able to torch Anderson on the defensive end when given the opportunity, though the Hornets may look to throw Al Farouq-Aminu his way well.
Overall, LeBron will take this matchup rather easily, but don't be surprised to see the sharp-shooting Anderson go point-for-point with the Chosen One either.
Mario Chalmers, PG, Heat
Chalmers has not played well for the Heat this season, but the team is going to need his defensive prowess here.
The usually savvy guard is an understated perimeter defender. He possesses great size and is also quite adept at keeping his man out of the paint. Chalmers is known to contest shots quite well too.
He's going to have to have the most tenacious of defensive performances in this one, though. He'll be tasked with guarding the likes of Brian Roberts, Greivis Vasquez and Austin Rivers on different occasions, all of whom can light it up on the offensive end.
Should Chalmers be able to keep New Orleans' backcourt in check, Miami will have no problem running away with this one.
Greivis Vasquez, PG, Hornets
Without Davis and Gordon, Vasquez has emerged as New Orleans' second-leading scorer, and the Hornets are going to need him in this one.
His shooting prowess coupled with his playmaking abilities—8.7 assists per contest to lead New Orleans—could prove to be the difference between a blowout and a competitive showing for the Hornets.
Vasquez has proved to be a floor general who his teammates can lean on, yet he has struggled against the most formidable of opponents.
And even amidst their countless struggles, it doesn't get much tougher than Heat, meaning Vasquez will have to amp up his production here if the Hornets wish to have a puncher's chance at pulling off the upset.
Ray Allen, SG, Heat
New Orleans does not have a bench presence to combat Allen. Not a single one.
Both Rivers and Roberts can score some, but not at the pace Allen can.
As such, Allen must come out firing for the Heat's second unit. He'll spend much of his time alongside James and/or Wade, and with either of them drawing constant double-teams, he should be able to position himself off the ball for plenty of uncontested shots.
Miami is 7-0 when Allen scores 15 or more points, so if he can light up the stat line with a similar point total, the trend suggests that the Heat will have no trouble walking away with a win.
Brian Roberts, PG, Hornets
I've mentioned Roberts' name multiple times already, but there's a better than good chance he flies under the Heat's radar just as he has all season.
Roberts is posting a ridiculous 17.58 PER at the moment and is New Orleans' second-best three-point shooter, converting on 40 percent of his attempts.
As previously noted, Miami is prone to giving up a bounty of open looks from the outside—just ask the Knicks—so Roberts will undoubtedly be given the unconditional green light.
If he can have a big night similar to the one he had against the Denver Nuggets when he scored 27 points, the Hornets stand a chance at staying within striking distance.
Prediction: Heat 108, Hornets 91
I'll be shocked if Miami doesn't come out and take care of business in this one.
Though the Heat rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, they're battling a team that averages just 92.8 points a game, the fourth-lowest mark in the league.
Toss in the Heat's offensive efficiency, which ranks third in the league and you have the makings of a much needed blowout for Miami's finest.
For the Hornets, they'll incur their third straight loss, but should take solace in knowing that they all came against title contenders. They also must continue to realize they'll be a much improved team once Davis and Gordon re-enter the fold.
That said, the Heat must use this game as a momentum builder. They've played well at home this season—outside of the one game against the Knicks—and should have no problem adding insult to New Orleans' injury, while healing their own self-inflicted wounds.
There will be those that will doubt Miami and ultimately hope to see them stumble to a third straight loss here.
But that simply isn't going to happen.
Not on LeBron James' watch.
All stats accurate as of December 7, 2012.
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