On the Heat: Hot Hot Hoops
Matchups. After a season of getting beat up on the boards, the Bucks made a point of getting bigger this summer. And after winning the NBA title without a true center (sorry, Joel Anthony), the Miami Heat decided to get even smaller. Miami rolls into tonight's matchup with Chris Bosh expected to start at center and LeBron James at power forward, which to be honest kind of terrifies me. James has played about 70% of his minutes at the 4, though with Shane Battier at the other forward spot the Heat essentially play two very versatile defenders who can alternate between the forward positions. The big difference is of course that LeBron is also the world's most dangerous offensive player and a physical freak of nature, while Battier is mostly just a spot-up jump-shooter.
Bosh has been excellent this season and his ability to step outside will probably mean another pretty limited night for Sam Dalembert, who has played 20 minutes in back-to-back games but hasn't played more than 22 all season. Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders look like more favorable matchups against Bosh, but what the Bucks do against James is the more obvious question. In an ideal world the Bucks would have Luc Mbah a Moute available to tussle with James, but the Cameroonian is not expected to return to practice until next week at the earliest. Starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova has been struggling enough on his own, so asking that he also hang with James in anything remotely resembling one-on-one situations would seem like mission impossible. As if shooting an anemic .316/.263/.429 wasn't bad enough, right?
Recall that it was a similar story for Ersan late last season when the Bucks faced off against the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony at power forward--and Ilyasova was actually playing well at that point. I'll hold out hope that Ersan can drop in a couple jumpers to at least get his confidence going slighty, but overall this looks like it will be a tough night on paper unless Skiles cross-matches his forwards and lets Ilyasova mark Shane Battier instead. That would be the more obvious solution to me, though I'm really not thrilled with the idea of Tobias Harris having to guard LeBron either. Still, it's slightly less lopsided than Ersan trying to mark James from an athletic standpoint, and it's a similar story with Mike Dunleavy and Marquis Daniels, with the latter being the best choice on paper to mark James. Though he's been an irregular rotation player thus far, recall that Daniels has been charged with defending James previously. All this and we haven't even talked about Dwyane Wade yet, who is listed as probable with a foot sprain.
Whatever the matchups might be, the Bucks' team defending will be seriously tested. While many focus on stopping James and Wade from scoring, this could just as easily be a game where Battier, Ray Allen and Mike Miller do the Bucks in by feasting on a collapsing Milwaukee defense. That's especially concerning given the issues the Bucks have had with their rotations the past two games.
Chatting with the enemy. For today's preview we did a Q&A with Kevin Kraczkowski from our SBN Heat sister site Hot Hot Hoops--check out Kevin's thoughts on the Heat below, and head over to HHH for my take on the Bucks' early season play. Thanks to Kevin for his insights!
Frank: Losing to the Mavericks two years ago seemed to bring a new focus and determination to LeBron and company last season. Now that they're the ones wearing championship rings, do you see them suffering any letdown or playing with less urgency?
Kevin: To be honest, I see no change in the level of intensity so far this season. With the exception of a few bad games (20 point loss to the Knicks, 18 point loss to the Grizzlies), the Heat have operated like a well oiled machine.
Far from having to strap this team to his back, LeBron has been able to count on his supporting cast (and not just the usual suspects) to pick up the slack. Some of the names have changed (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis), some have been soild (Norris Cole, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier), and some have started slower than expected (Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem).
Winning the NBA title has always been LeBron's number one goal. his odyssey to achieve the desired results took two cities and nine seasons, leaving one of those cities in basketball ruin. Like last season, his 28.9 PER (though two points lower than his 30.7 season rating) leads the NBA. To my eyes, the level of determination has remained the same in South Beach.
Frank: Wade has been banged up and his numbers are down in the very early going, while Bosh seems to be stepping up more of late. How do you see the dynamic among the Big Three evolving over the course of the season?
Kevin: Wade has started off slower than usual, and the case can be made that age has started to catch up to him. He's probably just a little banged up, though. He may very well snap back into form. In the meantime, Bosh's numbers have picked up slightly from last season, but his drive and intent changes when Miami doesn't have Wade to count on. He just seems more dangerous to opposing defenses when he is the clear number one or two threat on the floor.
Frank Most Bucks fans will always have at least a little bit of soft spot for Ray Allen--how has he fit into the Miami attack? How different is the supporting cast from the group that helped win the title in June?
Kevin: When first acquired, Ray Allen was seen as an addition to the "big three," a "big four" if you will. Although he hasn't quite graduated to that level of productivity, Allen (and most of the rest of the team) can be counted on to spread opposing defenses. This leaves the lanes open for penetration for the three principals (and an improved Mario Chalmers, dishing out 11 assists with one turnover on two occasions this young season after not having had more than eight in any game throughout last season).
It's never bad when you can start an NBA game with the league's career three-point leader sitting on your bench. Maybe he's not a lock for the sixth-man-of-the-year award, but he's certainly a leading candidate for the honor. Incidentally, he has nailed 21 of his first 41 three-point attempts this season, a 51.8 percent clip.
Frank: One of the most impressive parts of the Heat's championship season was how well they defended despite playing most of the season without a traditional center. However, their defensive numbers have been way off in the early going this season--what gives?
Kevin:The Heat boasts the NBA's number one offense, scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This superiority lends them a little elasticity when it comes to shutting down opposing offenses. The defense allows 107.2 points per 100 possessions, in the bottom sixth of the NBA. The only true center on Miami's roster is Joel Anthony, and he's only played 35 minutes through the first 11 Heat games. I can't honestly say if it's a change in the philosophy of coach Erik Spoelstra or if it's a more organic, devil-may-care attitude on the part of the five on the floor. This will be a secondary concern for the Heat as long as the points for average remains four or larger than the points against average (103.5-99.1, at latest count).