You might recall a Miami Heat win over the Los Angeles Lakers from back in March of 2011, one that saw Kobe Bryant decide to take an impromptu postgame shooting session in full view of reporters after a poor performance in that game's fourth quarter. Kobe enjoyed plenty of plaudits following that post-performance performance, while some of us shook our head at the showiness of it all. Because the Miami arena has a practice court that Kobe knew all about, and he didn't have to turn his basketball penance into a "look at me!" event.
On Thursday night, Miami Heat All-Star LeBron James pulled the same junk after an embarrassing Heat loss to the New York Knicks. Except that … he didn't.
James used that practice court, declining to share his reps for the snapping cell phones of the waiting media. And after that, much like Kobe in 2011, James came clean about Miami's lost week to reporters. From ESPN's Brian Windhorst, who was in the scrum for all of our benefit:
LeBron went thru an extended workout after the game on the practice court. Said Knicks "kicked our ass" & he "had to get better"
The Heat does have to get better. And while it was unsettling to see James float in the fourth quarter (his Heat entered with a 10-point deficit and finished the game down 20 as LeBron managed just four points and one rebound in nearly eight minutes of play before the Heat sent in the reserves), overall his stat line was impressive as always — 31 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists. More practice jumpers and post-up routines in the bowels of the American Airlines Center aren't the answer.
Figuring out what the heck is wrong with the Heat's defense is.
We asked for it. For years fans and analysts alike asked Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to limit the minutes of the offensively challenged Heat center Joel Anthony, arguing that his post-up defense wasn't needed much in a modern NBA and his substandard rebounding wouldn't be missed on the bench. The Heat's 2012 Finals dismantling of an Oklahoma City Thunder team that was and is working through the same criticisms with Kendrick Perkins gave rise to the cause — Miami went small, and found its way to a ring in short order after nearly two full seasons of struggles.
As a result, the Heat start Chris Bosh at center and Udonis Haslem at power forward. James plays the power forward position for long stretches. The NBA doesn't even have a listing for centers anymore on the All-Star ballot. Somewhere, Paul Mokeski weeps, as James Donaldson tries to console him. The lumbering centers have been asked to leave the arena.
And, as a result, the Heat have fallen from fourth to 24th in defensive efficiency this year. The team is 12-5, but coming off of a series of strangely close wins against the Rockets, the Cavaliers, and the starters-sitting San Antonio Spurs. The team fell to the Washington Wizards earlier this week, and it's been spanked twice by the Atlantic-leading New York Knicks.
All because Joel Anthony (who played well relative to his usual production in a return to action on Thursday, with four points and three rebounds in 13 minutes) has seen his minutes go down by 75 percent?
Probably not. It's most likely because power forwards -- not sure if ya heard -- aren't centers.
Power forwards can be tall like centers, they can rebound like centers, and they may have a defensive mindset like a center. But while Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem combine to share the various attributes of a pivotman, the distinction between acting as a helper or rebounder on defense as a power forward or as the last line of defense as a center is significant. Ask Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James — two players that have thrived seemingly out of position at power forward, but failed miserably in the 2006 World Championships when coach Mike Krzyzewski asked them to keep their heads on a swivel as center.
Miami's problems on Thursday came in defending a fantastic pell-mell outfit in New York that moved and ran with abandon, but took until the fourth quarter to register its first fast-break point. New York won that game with outside shooting, but it was the reaction to all that penetration and passing that led to all those looks. All the Jason Kidd drives ("COLLAPSE!," the coach yells) and Ronnie Brewer catches in the paint ("RECOVER!," he pleads) leading to the extra pass and bottomed trey.
This is why Miami's Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed is hurting this year. And this is why they're not causing the sort of turnovers (22nd, overall, in terms of percentage of possessions forced; down from third in 2011-12) that caused every coach in the NBA to wonder if his point guard would turn into the next Jeremy Lin when the Heat came into town last season.
Into Lin in a bad way, that is.
It comes down to instinct, and reps. Bosh has sustained a reputation as an iffy defender, but he's had his moments and can hold his own in the post despite a skinny frame. He should be fine. Haslem's work as a help defender during the Heat's first title wave alongside Shaquille O'Neal was some of the finest defensive basketball I've seen in the last decade. He should be fine.
Together, they're not fine. At least so far. It's that split-second that makes the difference. That split-second that you remember, "oh, I'm that guy. I'm the center, now."
So, is the solution to add more Anthony to the mix? I'm not entirely sure. Because it's still the start of December, and you have plenty of time to change the instinct, and accumulate those reps. And though these embarrassing defeats and close wins are worrying, they've still got a sturdy 12-5 platform to work from.
Back in March of 2011 Kobe talked up playing until June soon after his shooting exhibition, but his team (with Andrew Bynum melting down and Kobe working through a significant knee injury) couldn't even get out of the second week of May. They couldn't even take a game in the second round that year. Within two months they were done.
Two months from now the Miami Heat will be reminded that they still have two weeks to finalize their plans for the NBA's All-Star break. To echo LeBron — the Knicks kicked their ass, the Heat have to get better, but they have 65 more games in this long and entertaining season to figure it all out. Aching Kobe and his fluid-filled knee only had 16.
Significant work has to be done. The Heat stink on defense, working with a ranking that historically has precluded trips to the second round or even postseason. The team is and will always remain an experiment — a top-heavy group of stars left over from the NBA's previous financial era. Sometimes this Miami experiment will blow up in coach Spoelstra's face, and sometimes it'll blow up the league.
Either way, it's a fun watch. Even if it takes place on a practice court we're not allowed to see.