Auburn Hills — LeBron James flexed his muscles, stared at the crowd and let everybody know he was here to bring the heat on a cold night.
There was 5:40 remaining in the third quarter when James put an early dagger into the Pistons night and let everybody know that last week’s home loss to the Pistons was one of those off nights for the two-time defending champion Heat.
Miami blew out the Pistons 110-95 Sunday, but the Pistons left a lasting impression the past week by winning a game in Miami. The Heat can’t take this team for granted anymore. This is not a guaranteed victory during an 82-game mindless odyssey that leaves teams breathless and physically spent some nights.
The Heat must actually play and not sleepwalk.
“They are on everybody’s radar,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “They really are.”
That’s about as big a compliment as the Pistons would get from the Heat. Players denied marking the date in red but they sure played that way. Instead the Heat look forward to Tuesday’s marquee showdown against the Pacers.
Heat vs. Pistons is not a showdown yet. But some day it might be.
“They have a lot of young players,” center Chris Bosh said. “The East is wide open. They have to continue to work hard and believe in their coaching staff and believe they can unite together. There is not a huge difference between a good team and bad team so they have to make up their mind if they want to go up instead of down.”
The Pistons sparked the community slightly with their four-game winning streak, which was snapped by the Heat. The key for the Pistons is defense, not offense.
Before Sunday’s loss the Pistons held opponents to 92.5 points a game during their winning streak and 39.8 percent shooting. The Heat turned up their game and picked apart the Pistons. James (24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists) was more assertive than he was a week ago. And Ray Allen, filling in the scoring role for Dwyane Wade, outhustled the younger Pistons with 18 points.
Miami shot 55.6 percent from the floor. And only Memphis (overtime) and Oklahoma City scored as many points.
This just wasn’t a simple case of the Pistons not playing defense. The Heat brought more energy and, when they do that, the Pistons have little chance of victory, even with Wade on the sidelines resting his sore knees.
Of course the Pistons were handicapped by having Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and Chauncey Billups on the bench. When Brandon Jennings drew his third foul in the first half the Pistons turned to Peyton Siva, who played just 48 minutes in 10 games this season. Siva was overmatched against the Heat, finishing with two points, four assists and three rebounds.
The Heat have a long memory and don’t take kindly to teams that embarrass them at home.
“We respected them,” Battier said. “But for us we struggled with their size and athleticism. They really took it to us (in Miami) using their size and athleticism. We played with great energy tonight and that is how you negate their size. We have to play fast and we have to play with energy. We did not do that last time.”
The Pistons added veterans Josh Smith and Jennings to the roster, along with rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It will be unfair to judge this team until the first of the year.
The good news is the Pistons face three straight teams with losing records before playing host to Portland next Sunday. These are games they must win in the weak East.
“I think they are going through some growing pains right now,” Battier said. “They have talent but they are still growing. It does not happen overnight. With the way the East is they are going to win some games and be a handful on any given night.”
He is right. But when James decides to flex his muscles and challenge the crowd it means doom and gloom for the Pistons no matter where they play.