The Miami Heat held the New Orleans Hornets to 90 points Saturday night, but Miami started the game playing the casual defense that has characterized Miami's recent razor-thin wins and embarrassing losses.
The Hornets made nine of their first 11 shot attempts and scored 27 points by the 4:43 mark of the first quarter. Then, Joel Anthony entered the game. New Orleans made just two field goals for the rest of the quarter, with Anthony blocking and altering opponents' shots at the rim.
When Miami committed to surround the Big Three with shooters during last year's playoffs, Joel Anthony was left without a rotation spot. But with Udonis Haslem now starting and Shane Battier coming off the bench, Anthony has a role -- if a limited one. And he's making a case for why he deserves to keep it.
During Anthony's next stint of action -- substituting for Chris Bosh midway through the second quarter -- New Orleans scored only two points for nearly three minutes. Anthony doesn't deserve all the credit -- Miami's defensive rotations in general looked sharper, and Ryan Anderson was sitting on the bench with foul trouble -- but he has a tangible impact on Miami's defense. He is a very good pick-and-roll defender and shot-blocker. Sometimes, that can backfire. At times during that second-quarter stretch, Anthony was late rotating over to Jason Smith on a few jump shots. But Miami's defense is unquestionably better when he plays.
Will we see Anthony continue to play? Erik Spoelstra is experimenting with lineups right now to find the right match. Early in the season, Rashard Lewis had a significant role off the bench. But now Mike Miller has taken his spot and relegated Lewis to the bench. Now Spoelstra is seeing how starting Haslem works. If Anthony continues to play well, he'll remain in his spot. The Heat have plenty of shooters, so Lewis isn't necessary. Miami doesn't have anyone who can offer the interior defense Anthony provides, though.
Of course, putting Anthony in the game means that one fewer shooter to space the floor is on the court (To be fair, he's probably not appreciably worse on offense than Haslem). Anthony's third stint of action wasn't as impressive as his first two, as he set a moving screen on the last Heat possession of the third quarter and later bobbled a pass from LeBron James. Bosh will partly determine whether Anthony plays a lot down the road. He's shown flashes of good defense in the middle and currently leads the Heat in blocks with 26 rejections (Anthony has 10 blocks in 86 minutes -- 519 fewer than Bosh has played). Anthony will need to sufficiently compensate for his inept offense with strong defense to get playing time. He's not going to make a turnaround jump shot every night.
Spoelstra will continue to play with lineups. Teams are supposed to experiment in November and December. But Anthony has made a strong case that he can serve as a key cog in returning the Heat's defense to championship levels.