In Friday's first quarter, Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers set a high screen for LeBron James to strategically force a mismatch. This wasn't just any mismatch. Chalmers was being guarded by Isaiah Thomas, who stands all of 5-foot-9.
Predictably, James turned Thomas into a traffic cone and barreled toward the rim, where McLemore stood in his way. McLemore, bless his heart, had rotated over from the weak side and tried to take a charge in James’ path.
You can probably guess what happened next. James skied over him with a patented tomahawk, flattening McLemore and sending the nearby Heat bench into a screaming frenzy as James towered over the rookie. No charge called.
“It sucks that it was him,” James said after the game. “Because I like him. That sucks.”
After the game, McLemore was in good spirits, laughing off the play. James and McLemore go back to the rookie’s high school days in Missouri.
“I just went over there to try and take the charge,” McLemore said before letting out a smile. “And he dunked the ball.”
There’s a lesson underneath the highlight reel. You see, the play showcased a classic dilemma in the game: Do you bravely challenge a player launching for a dunk? Or just let him roll through -- maybe the cowardly thing to do in some eyes -- to avoid the potential humiliation?
McLemore made his choice, but not without second-guessing himself.
“Afterwards, I thought maybe I should have just fouled him,” McLemore said. “Knowing it was LeBron, I knew they weren't going to call (a charge), but I was just playing to my defensive principles. Even though they didn't call it, I didn't let that mess my game up.”
In the eyes of Kings head coach Mike Malone, McLemore made the right play, the more admirable one. McLemore could have given up and let James score an uncontested bucket. But instead, McLemore made a play, trying to cover for his teammates who blew the pick-and-roll coverage.
“Some guys would duck and get out of the way because they do not want to be on the ESPN highlight tape,” Malone said. “But Ben is a competitor and he hates to lose. I’m proud of Ben.”
After much pondering, Shane Battier thinks it was a rookie mistake. As one of the foremost charge-takers in NBA history, the Heat forward has been in McLemore’s spot countless times.
What did the expert think of McLemore’s choice?
“You get out of the way,” Battier said. “Even if you go for the foul, you’re going to hurt yourself. At some point, you just cut your losses and do the fake trip and or something and say, ‘Oh well, I tried.’"
Battier continued his lecture.
“That’s a skill, a learned skill,” Battier joked. “I don’t expect a rookie in his first 20 games to understand that. That’s the biggest difference between the NBA and college: the speed of the game. You have to understand what you can get away with. So he’ll learn. It was a learning experience.”
James’ dunk will be replayed over and over, but it also symbolized the game. The Heat scored a season-high 122 points against the porous Kings defense and won easily, by 19 points. The defensive intensity of Friday’s matchup was on the level of the All-Star Game. Maybe lower.
Put it this way: The Kings shot 58.1 percent from the floor and lost by almost 20. In fact, a team hasn't shot that well and lost by that much in over 25 years.
Not since April 5, 1986, when the Phoenix Suns shot 61.1 percent and lost by 19 to, ironically enough, the Kings. How’s this for perspective: New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson was starting for the Kings at shooting guard.
All in all, James’ dunk on McLemore was just one of 20 dunks in the game, the most in any NBA game this season. Believe it or not, Ray Allen dunked for the first time this season. And then dunked again, marking the first time he’s dunked twice in a game since Feb. 10, 2011, against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Ray looked good getting up there,” James said. “I was watching ‘He Got Game’ last night and he dunked a lot. Jesus Shuttlesworth was out in full effect.”
With the victory, the Heat move to 20-6 on the season, tying the best 26-game start in franchise history, set last season. It was the 13th straight game that the Heat have scored at least 100 points against the Kings, setting a franchise record for consecutive triple-digit games against an opponent.
The Kings aren't an NBA-caliber defense just yet. This was the second game in a row that they've hemorrhaged at least 120 points to the opposing team, dropping their record to 7-18. Since Rudy Gay's arrival, the Kings have allowed 111.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank dead last in the league. The offense has barely improved. Gay had seven turnovers in his fifth game in his new uniform and the Kings shot 41.7 percent from the free-throw line.
Despite 27 points of his own, DeMarcus Cousins barely slowed Chris Bosh, allowing the Heat big man to score a season-high 25 points on 11-for-16 shooting. After the game, Cousins sat at his locker, eating a plate of chicken fingers before leaving the room without speaking to reporters.
Needless to say, Malone wasn't pleased with the Kings’ performance and proceeded to rail on his team’s defensive effort.
“We have nobody that is protecting the basket,” Malone said outside the Kings’ locker room after the Heat scored 70 points in the paint. “I question how many guys that we have on this team who will take pride in their defense. I think a lot of guys are worried about their numbers and the offense, but they are not committed to defense. That’s apparent every night you watch us play.
“Every day in practice, every shoot-around, every team meeting and every film session, all we talk about is our defense. Obviously the message isn't getting through. They’re not accepting it or they’re unwilling to accept it, I’m not sure what the problem is; but I have to find five guys (Saturday night) in Orlando that are willing to compete on the defensive end of the floor.”
Two different vibes for two different teams.
Just another Friday night in Miami for the two-time defending champs.