A nagging leg injury in the preseason and the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were all it took for Joel Anthony to go from an invaluable defensive presence to forgotten man.
At one point last season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called Anthony one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, but somewhere between then and earlier this week Anthony’s value as a pick-and-roll defender diminished. Then came humiliating losses to the Wizards and Knicks.
Looking for a defensive spark, Spoelstra called upon Anthony in the first half against the Hornets on Saturday. There were neither thunderous chants of his beloved nickname (The Warden) nor playful cries of “MVP” when he went to the free-throw line, but the return of Anthony to the Heat’s rotation echoed off the court and up to the scoreboard nonetheless.
Anthony is back in the Heat’s rotation and with him defense seems to have returned to AmericanAirlines Arena.
“[Anthony] is a big part of our defense,” Spoelstra said. “If you play him in bursts like that, you see his speed and athleticism.”
“He is a game-changer in short minutes. He has really done a good job in the last two games. I have been trying to find a way to break him into the rotation and I have been able to do it the last two games.”
Anthony logged fewer than 14 minutes against the Hornets but his defensive energy, along with some other minor adjustments to the Heat’s rotation, was enough to blow open the game in the second quarter.
“We need him,” LeBron James said of Anthony. “He is one of our anchors to our defense, especially in our back line.”
“When guys drive past us, he is able to clean up a lot of what we have on the perimeter. To have him back in the rotation was a good thing for our team.”
The Heat trailed by four points when Anthony checked into the game in the first quarter. Miami led 64-47 at halftime.
“The minutes have been slowly going up, so it is safe to assume that if I continue to play I’ll be able to get some more opportunities,” said Anthony, who had three blocks against New Orleans. “You never know when your number is going to get called. Part of being a professional is being ready when that time comes.”
Anthony’s limitations on offense are far more obvious than his worth on defense. His role withered during the 2012 playoffs and a strained leg muscle sidelined him for most of training camp.
In his place, Lewis emerged in the preseason as a valuable three-point shooter, which helped spread the floor and fit well with Spoelstra’s vision of his “pace and space” offense.
Lewis slid into the starting rotation after Shane Battier injured his knee against the Cavaliers on Nov. 24. The move put a strain on the Heat’s defense and Lewis contributed just five points over three games.
Lewis’ final start was the Heat’s loss to the Washington Wizards and he hasn’t played since.
Udonis Haslem has started in two consecutive games with Battier and Anthony coming off the bench as part of the Heat’s second unit. Battier played 30 minutes against the Hornets while Haslem and Anthony split time, logging about 14 minutes each.
“My job description really didn’t change at all and I thought that was a good defensive lineup,” Battier said. “When Norris [Cole], [Anthony] and I were in the game, we were down seven and we turned up the intensity and we turned the tide. So, that’s a great defensive-energy group.”
One hard practice, a little tinkering with the rotation and a game against the young and injury-deleted Hornets was enough to snap the Heat’s first two-game losing streak since winning the 2012 NBA champions. On Monday, a more worthy challenge will present itself.
The quick and nimble Atlanta Hawks have won nine of their last 10 games and on Saturday stunned the Memphis Grizzlies on their home court with a 10-point victory. The Heat lost to the Grizzlies by 18 points at FedEx Forum.
“They’re so different compared to last year,” Battier said. “Last year it was all iso-ball and now with those three quick point guards, they’re attacking and just playing a very different style.”