Nobody might have been more disappointed LeBron James didn’t play Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena than Justise Winslow.
Two nights after guarding 2013 league MVP Kevin Durant, the Heat’s 19-year-old rookie wanted another crack at James, after the four-time MVP went 5-of-5 against Winslow and scored 29 points in a win over Miami on Oct. 30.
Winslow isn’t a glutton for punishment. Now two months into his NBA career, he sees every opportunity to guard the best as an opportunity to grow into one of the league’s best defenders.
“I really have fun guarding those guys, just being guys that you look up to growing up,” Winslow said Friday after practice. “Nights like [Thursday] and [Saturday] are just fun playing against the best players, just testing your skills collectively and individually. It’s kind of what you dream of as a kid.”
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And that’s really what Winslow still is. He’s a 6-7, 225-pound kid guarding the best players in the world — and doing a good enough job already to develop a reputation for being one of the best young defenders in the game. He’s holding the players he has guarded to 38.3 percent shooting, about 4.7 percent below their season average.
Durant scored 25 points against the Heat on Thursday, mostly with Winslow guarding him. But when the Thunder was trying to find Durant when trailing 97-95 with 1.5 seconds left, Winslow never allowed him to get open. The ball instead went to Russell Westbrook, who fired up a tough three-pointer with Dwyane Wade in his face that bounced off the backboard and got nowhere near the net.
After the game, Durant, who missed three of his final four three-point attempts, said he “liked Winslow.”
“He’s strong, aggressive,” Durant said. “But I felt like I got every shot I wanted.”
Wade, who along with Chris Bosh still spends a lot of time directing Winslow on the court, including telling him to “get up on” Durant before that final play Thursday, found humor in Durant’s comments. Give a defender credit? No way, Wade said.
“I wouldn’t either,” Winslow said with a smile when told of what Durant said. “Especially not a rookie.”
Winslow said he wasn’t afraid to talk trash last year at Duke. But 18 games into his rookie season, he says “it’s a little early to be talking trash.” He prefers to keep a straight face on the court at all times. He said it gives him an advantage, not letting the player he’s guarding know if he’s getting frustrated.
“That’s really how I got to be on the court,” said Luol Deng, whose absence over the past five games has thrust Winslow into an even more important role for the Heat. “I first came in the league and I was behind Andres Nocioni. I just knew playing for Scott Skiles if I played defense I would be in the game. Every game I played it was against somebody who was a big-name superstar in the league, and I really took pride in that. Justise has shown that already. We still have so many games, but you can see how strong he is. He’s really buying into the defensive mind-set first. That’s what so great to see from a rookie. Eventually, your offense will get better. But somebody who is committed to play that kind of defense you can tell he’s going to be a great player.”
Winslow really has nothing else to do but work on his craft.
At 19, he says he can’t go out with his teammates or friends to South Beach because there’s nowhere he can get in. So, he usually spends his free time at his Miami apartment playing FIFA soccer on his Xbox (the only thing he said he bought for himself with his rookie contract). When he’s not doing that, he uses his iPad to watch game film, movies and shows on NetFlix, or search YouTube for Duke basketball highlights and funny videos.
“It’s kind of like being at a very extended overnight basketball camp with a lot of friends and good teammates,” said Winslow, a Houston native, of what his three-month experience in Miami has been like. “There’s a great basketball culture. Everybody likes the Heat, so that’s cool. I just like the people. There’s a lot of energy. It’s kind of a younger city. People always want to come visit you because you’re in Miami. It’s not like you’re in Detroit or something. I like it here.”
Winslow says he speaks un pocito (a little bit) of Spanish. He lives 15 minutes from AmericanAirlines Arena and usually walks to Fooq’s, his favorite restaurant, for a Persian salad for lunch. Then he walks to the arena to practice and games.
“I usually put my hood on so [people] don’t recognize me,” Winslow said.
But that might become harder in the next few years, especially if he continues to grow into a valuable defender.
“Nineteen years old. Nineteen years old,” Wade repeated to emphasize his point. “I can’t imagine what that would have been like for me — guarding Kobe [Bryant] and [Allen] Iverson at 19. I wasn’t ready.
“I just know when he’s on the floor, we’re a lot better defensive team.”
Monday: Wizards at Heat
When/where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 73-36.
Scouting report: The Wizards are playing Sunday night at home against the Mavericks and will be playing a back-to-back when they arrive in Miami. Power forwards Nene Hilario (calf) and Kris Humphries (ankle) missed Friday’s game in Phoenix, and center Martin Gortat (personal) won’t play Sunday. Washington won last year’s season series 3-1 but is 13-41 all-time in Miami.