December 17, 2014

The Miami Heat have excelled defensively behind their impressive rookie and shot-erasing center, while the Utah Jazz have carried over their defensive improvement from last season.

Utah, though, could be without its anchor for Thursday night's matchup between the league's top two scoring defenses at Miami.

The Heat (5-3) ranked 19th in 2014-15 in defensive efficiency with 103.8 points allowed per 100 possessions but have reduced that number to 93.7 this season, and their 90.1 points per game allowed are the second-fewest in the NBA.

That drops further to 86.3 points per 100 possessions when rookie forward Justise Winslow is on the floor, the fewest for any player in the league averaging at least 28.5 minutes. Winslow has immediately assumed large defensive responsibilities, taking on the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan.

Though the 10th overall pick is averaging a modest 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds, the Heat are plus-71 with Winslow on the floor - a margin that ranks among the league leaders.

"He competes, he studies, he applies, he learns," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And that's all that you can ask for from a young kid."

Hassan Whiteside has also been a major factor, contributing 3.9 of Miami's 6.9 blocks per game. Also averaging 15.3 points and 11.4 rebounds, Whiteside accounted for three of the Heat's seven blocks in Tuesday's 101-88 home win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Miami forced 18 turnovers and limited the Lakers to 39 second-half points while Chris Bosh scored a season-high 30.

"The identity of this basketball team that we're starting to embrace is a physical, gritty, tough defensive-minded team," Spoelstra said.

Utah (4-3) is allowing a league-low 89.7 points per game and also leads the NBA in that category going back to Feb. 20, when Rudy Gobert joined the starting lineup permanently. But Gobert, who is averaging 3.4 blocks, is questionable for Thursday's contest after leaving in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's 118-114 loss at Cleveland with a twisted left ankle. X-rays were negative.

Though Utah surrendered a season-high point total and let the Cavaliers shoot 50.0 percent after limiting its previous opponents to 39.4, playing the reigning Eastern Conference champions to the wire could be a confidence booster for the young Jazz, who finished 11th in the West last season.

"This showed us we could play with anybody," said Gordon Hayward, who scored 17 and leads the club with 15.7 points per game. "We were right there. It was a great experience for us as a team."

Utah is shooting well from 3-point range, going 33 for 73 (45.2 percent) over the last three games, while the Heat have limited their last five opponents to 27.5 percent shooting from deep.

Miami sent Mario Chalmers and James Ennis to Memphis on Tuesday in exchange for Beno Udrih and Jarnell Stokes, a measure to help avoid paying the repeater tax and improve cap flexibility for free agency next summer. Chalmers was averaging just 5.5 points on 31.3 percent shooting, though he started at point guard for the 2012 and 2013 NBA championship teams.

Dwyane Wade's 28.0 career scoring average against Utah is his highest against one team, but he won't play in this matchup because one of his sons was admitted to a hospital for undisclosed reasons.

These teams have alternated wins and losses for the last nine meetings, with Utah holding a 5-4 edge.

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