The play that led NBA.com’s top ten this morning was none other than this flight of the valkyrie as portrayed by LeBron James receiving a pass from Norris Cole:
All the attention will be placed on James defying gravity, but there won’t be any perspective as to how that fastbreak developed. What so many fail to notice about the play is that it came as a direct result of the Heat’s defense; namely Joel Anthony’s defense. The 6’9″ shot-blocker came from out-of-nowhere to block the close-range shot of Louis Williams and, most importantly, keeping the ball inbounds.
It’s been said over the past three years over and over again: the Heat are at their best when the defense can create offense. When the Heat are forcing turnovers and initiating fastbreaks, they are at their most unstoppable point because of how fast, athletic and unselfish the Heat can be when running a fastbreak. In this particular instance, it was Norris Cole who was unselfish enough to get the ball to James.
All coming as a result of the Heat’s main deterrent at the rim: an undersized center who has barely seen minutes this year because of his offensive shortcomings. Now that the Heat are slowly but surely realizing that they need someone who can affect shots at the rim, Anthony is beginning to return to the rotation. Miami was growing weary of giving up 100+ points to teams like the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers or the John Wall-less Washington Wizards.
Needless to say, they made the right choice and it’s paying off. Anthony’s influence is being felt and the Heat are starting to take notice, thus the reason why Joel played a season-high 18 minutes in the Heat’s win over a hot Atlanta team. Anthony only had two points on one field-goal attempt, but his two blocks and two steals, as well as the number of shots he affected at the rim with his presence, forced Atlanta to second-guess their shot selection.
As a result, the Hawks ended up taking 28 three-pointers; five more than their usual average of three-point attempts per game.
Joel was a +9 against Atlanta and a +10 in 14 minutes against New Orleans, where he recorded three blocks, three rebounds and one steal. What a coincidence that the Heat allowed 92 and 90 points respectively in the two games where Anthony has garnered his most minutes this season. It was the first time since the middle of November that the Heat had allowed less than 100 points in back-to-back games.
You can take the Hornets game with a grain of salt, but yielding only 92 points to a surging and motivated Hawks team is impressive no matter how you try to put it.
The Heat are returning to their defensive identity as a team that can run you out of the building on both sides of the ball, yet they’re doing so while also keeping the flow of the offense moving as fluidly as it has in the ‘Big Three’ era. Even more impressive is the fact that they’re doing so with Joel on the floor. While I’m not one to agree when the team decides to run an ineffective pick-and-roll with him, it is truly a beautiful sight to see the talent of LeBron James overshadowing the essential loss of a fifth player on the offensive end.
And do the Heat have better options at this point? Rashard Lewis and Udonis Haslem aren’t providing much on either end, with the exception of Haslem’s rebounding. Shane Battier could find himself back in the starting role thanks to his ability to stretch the floor and still play effective defense against those much larger than him, but he’s not going to provide the shot-blocking that Anthony provides and this team needs.
While Anthony does provide the shot-blocking the Heat so desperately needs, he may find himself in a better situation coming off the bench. If he’s implemented in the starting lineup, he runs a higher risk of getting into foul trouble, while also obstructing the team’s attempts at creating an offensive rhythm early on.
When he comes off the bench, he’ll be fresh and will feature a new dimension to the Heat defense; one that includes a premier shot-blocker. The opposition’s second unit will be forced into taking long jumpers because of Anthony’s influence around the rim, leading to the opponent taking inconsistent shots in low-percentage areas. Having Anthony on the floor against the second unit will allow the Heat to weather the storm with either James out or him being the only superstar on the floor.
Perhaps his most redeeming value comes in the form of his activity along the perimeter. While his perimeter defense has never been regarded as world-class, he’s a huge eyesore to point guards coming off the pick-and-roll. Anthony’s lengthy arms cause point guards to second guess their pass because of the risk of Joel creating a deflection that would end up leading to one of those oh-so-dangerous Heat fastbreaks.
That’s what Joel Anthony does on the court: he makes you think twice about everything you do. If you want to take a layup, you have to think about the shot-blocker who’s garnering 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes. Want to run a pick-and-roll? Tough to do when Anthony is frantically waving his arms in front of your face, before racing back to his original man and eliminating any threat of a successful pick-and-roll.
Outside of LeBron James, nobody can cover the floor on the defensive end like Anthony. He’s capable of causing deflections at the top of the perimeter and can block any shot that comes his way because he has no fear of getting dunked on. As strange as it might be to say, Joel Anthony is the player that’s going to turn everything around for the Heat.
“But the Heat won a championship without him, why do they need him now”, is what you’re probably asking. The Heat didn’t beat the Thunder directly because of their small lineup; they won because LeBron James is incredible, Shane Battier was disgustingly wonderful from beyond the arc, and they caused a great deal of mismatches between people like Battier going against Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh going against Kendrick Perkins.
Against Indiana? LeBron and Dwyane became unstoppable, and Roy Hibbert wasn’t aggressive enough to get the ball. Against Boston? You can thank LeBron James for his incredible Game 6 and Chris Bosh for the most underrated Game 7 performance in recent NBA history.
If the Heat want to see consistent success, however, they need to have some form of defense at the rim. No capable guard or forward is going to be worried when they drive in on Chris Bosh or Rashard Lewis. They will be worried, though, when they see one of the league’s top shot-blockers hanging out near the rim. The fact that they second-guessed for a mere second means that the Heat have already won that defensive possession by forcing their opponent into a shot they didn’t want to take.