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Heat rookie Winslow gets trial by fire on defense ... twice

One-on-one defensive matchups against LeBron James and James Harden test the mettle, resolve of Miami's top pick

POSTED: Nov 2, 2015 2:59 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Justise Winslow tried to make Rockets star James Harden work on both ends of the court.

There have been more rude introductions -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's bare knuckle how-do-you-do to Kent Benson barely a minute into the No. 1 overall pick's debut for Milwaukee in October 1977 remains the black-and-blue standard -- but Miami rookie Justise Winslow's welcome-to-the-NBA weekend figured to be a doozy.

In a span of 48 hours, the Heat's 6-foot-7 forward found himself taking his turn in the defensive tank against LeBron James and James Harden, two of league's most potent and borderline unstoppable scorers. Winslow is no slouch, sturdy and serious in ways you wouldn't expect from a 19-year-old. He was and is considered a Draft steal of sorts for Miami, which grabbed him with the No. 10 overall pick in June.

But just because you're drafted in the lottery doesn't mean, on any given night, you can't get your ticket punched.

"That's this league," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said late Friday in Cleveland. "You might not be playing against the best player in the game every night but you're going to be playing against dynamic players."

That night, Winslow was playing against the game's best. Heat starter Luol Deng picked up two early fouls in the first quarter so Spoelstra subbed in the rookie.

James' and the Cavaliers' response was almost automatic. The four-time Kia MVP got the ball in isolation and backed Winslow down, wheeling around for a 9-foot, step-back jumper. Next trip down, there he was again with a turnaround, 15-foot shot from the right side.

"I wish he wouldn't have came in that way," Deng said. "The rook did a good job, it's just that LeBron was making tough shots. It was good defense. Just tough shots."

In the second half, James did it a couple more times. Winslow did everything right -- not biting on any fakes, not succumbing to the natural instinct to lay his hands on the Cavaliers star, not immediately falling to the floor and curling up in the fetal position -- and the result still turned out wrong for his team.

I told him, 'I've been there. We've all been there.' I just let him know, I came in [as a rookie] early in the season, we played against the Lakers, and Gary Payton tore me up.

– Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade's advice to Justise Winslow

Obviously, attacking the newbie on defense was intentional on James' part. It even seemed a little cruel, given their respective resumes to this point. Or -- if you wanted to look at it more long-term -- it was almost as if James was schooling Winslow, giving him a tough cover to fast-track his development.

Actually, though, James just shrugged off the encounters. Indifference, the ultimate rookie hazing.

"It doesn't matter who I'm going against," he said after a routine 29-point performance. "Nothing personal against any rookie. It's not personal, it's about the game of basketball. I love the game. I take it very seriously when I'm out on the floor. I try to do whatever it takes to help my team win the game. So it doesn't matter who's in front of me."

It mattered to Winslow, though not in any crushing way. Afterward, he sat at his dressing stall between a pair of teammates, not at all flustered before or even when talking with reporters.

Heat vs. Cavaliers

LeBron James scores 29 points, Kevin Love adds 24 with 14 rebounds and the Cavaliers win their home opener, a 102-92 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night.

"You can prepare a lot," Winslow said, "but there's nothing that can really prepare you for guarding a person other than guarding him. So I was just trying to make him take tough shots, which he did. He made a lot of them."

Winslow's game plan when he got on the floor and felt James bang against him that firs time? "Make it tough," the taciturn Texan said. "It's hard to say what you want to do to a player who can do everything pretty well. So try t0 make it tough. Try to change up coverages a little -- maybe a couple possessions you're off him a little bit, then you crowd him."

James, Winslow said, said nothing during their exchanges. Heat teammates offered what help they could from their positions on the court or from the bench.

"Guys were talking to me, telling me where the help is," he said. "And in timeouts, teammates are telling me 'Good defense.' So many little things to do. It was a great experience just going out there and trying to guard one of the world's best and trying to make it difficult for him."

I was just trying to make him take tough shots, which he did. He made a lot of them. ... It was a great experience just going out there and trying to guard one of the world's best and trying to make it difficult for him.

– Miami Heat rookie Justise Winslow, on guarding LeBron James

It's baptism under fire, a sports initiation that's inevitable. When the rookie is your teammate, you have him fetch donuts and carry your bags. When he is an opponent, you try to bust him as soon and as often as you can.

"I told him, 'I've been there. We've all been there,' " Miami's Dwyane Wade said. "I just let him know, I came in [as a rookie] early in the season, we played against the Lakers, and Gary Payton tore me up. All he kept saying was, 'Go at the rook.' I had two fouls, he had 14 points, first quarter. It happens. That's LeBron James, the best player in the game.

"Also, you can't do nothing about the shots he's making. He's shooting fadeaways -- he starts at eight feet, he ends up at 16 feet. There's nothing you can do. Don't worry about it. Next time, try to do your work a little early. Try to make it tougher and get him a little farther out. But don't put your head down, the best player in the game scoring."

By the time the Heat could talk about Winslow's learning moments Friday, they already were thinking about the next round he would face Sunday in Miami. Harden and the Houston Rockets were angry after dropping their first two games of the season by 20 points each. By halftime, the Heat was down by 19 points. Harden had scored 14 and Winslow, in 12 minutes, was minus-10.

Rockets vs. Heat

Dwyane Wade scores 20 points and records eight rebounds as the Heat drop the Rockets at AmericanAirlines Arena.

But an airing-out by Miami veteran Udonis Haslem grabbed all their attention during intermission. Winslow played 18:31 over the final two quarters, helped bother Harden into 0-for-7 shooting, outscored the Rockets star 8-2 and posted a plus-34 as Miami romped 65-26 in the second half.

Probably the best part, individually, was that Winslow by all accounts was no more animated or impressed with himself after Sunday's game than he had been agitated after Friday's.

"This is something I prepared for my whole life," he said. "Now that it's here, it's just accepting the defensive challenge. It's what I signed up for. It's what I wanted my whole life, playing against the greats. And hopefully one day become a great player."

At which time it will be Winslow's turn, well earned, to go at the rook.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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