What is going on with the struggling Miami Heat defense?

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If you haven’t been watching, if you didn’t look at the numbers, you could easily miss it because the Heat are 6-2 and Miami remains the city you are going to have to go through to get an NBA title.

But the Miami Heat defense has been bad this year.

They are 24th in the NBA in points given up per possession — 104.1 per 100 trips down the court (via Hoopdata). For comparison, last season they were fourth in the NBA at 97.1 per 100 possessions — seven more points per 100 is a big drop off. Teams are shooting a little better all and much better from three (38.5 percent this season, up from 36 percent last season).

What is going on? And should Erik Spoelstra or Heat fans be worried?

Not yet, Tom Haberstroh says at ESPN’s Heat Index.

For one, we are 8 games into the season and it’s too early to hit the panic button on anything (we’re looking at you, Lakers). Teams start slow sometimes on one end of the floor, even the Celtics did on defense last season.

But Haberstroh says the bigger issue is the Heat bench, and one particular bench guy in particular.

The dirty little secret is that the Heat’s starting lineup has been terrific defensively. According to NBA.com/stats, the starting lineup of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh has held opponents to 94.0 points per 100 possessions in 104 minutes of playing time. For reference, the Knicks lead the NBA in defensive efficiency at 93.6 points per 100 possessions….

When Ray Allen has been on the floor this season, the Heat have surrendered 109.0 points per 100 possessions. When Allen’s on the bench? 97.7 points per 100 possessions, or right about where they were last season.

It’s not as simple as “it’s just Ray Allen” but his ankle is not right and he is not moving laterally as well so his defense isn’t great. Plus it’s a new system with new players to adjust to.

Maybe having Joel Anthony out there with Allen at times can help — Anthony doesn’t bring much offense but he brings some defensive intensity the Heat have lacked with their second unit.

But that second unit is something to watch Wednesday night — the Clippers have the deepest bench in the NBA, with a backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford that have torn teams up. The Clips have a real advantage here and have been playing well this season — this is going to be one close game.

Warriors, Nuggets battle for first in West

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Playing in big games has become the norm for the Golden State Warriors.

Not so much for the Denver Nuggets.

Tuesday’s matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference is new territory for Denver. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets have been rebuilding and retooling, not competing for titles, but they have arrived this year and are challenging to be the best team in the Western Conference.

The winner of Tuesday’s game in Denver will sit atop the conference standings. Denver (29-13) has been up there for a while now, but the Warriors (29-14) might yet find another gear in the second half of the season as they pursue a third consecutive NBA championship.

They are about to get a new, big piece when DeMarcus Cousins returns this week.

The center, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, tore his Achilles almost a year ago. His season debut is projected to come on Friday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State is expecting it will take time for Cousins to get fully immersed and integrated into the offense.

“We’re excited, but it’s a little daunting, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s not going to be simple just to plug him in. There’s going to be an adjustment period. He knows that, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Nuggets have a big enough task stopping Golden State’s other stars. Guard Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, hit 11 3-pointers in a 48-point effort to beat Dallas on Sunday, and then there’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to worry about.

And the Warriors have a revenge factor to use. The Nuggets beat them 100-98 in Denver on Oct. 21 when Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones‘ layup at the buzzer.

The Nuggets have been playing at a high level lately, especially at home, where they are 18-3 and have won their last 12. The latest was a grind-it-out 116-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, which might have been a perfect tune-up for the Warriors.

Denver has its own star power in center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic, averaging team-highs with 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had consecutive triple-doubles last week and then clocked in with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Portland.

With or without Cousins, Golden State will have a tough time handling the Serbian. But the Warriors are best when they force teams to adjust to them, and they come at teams from different angles. One night it could be Curry, the next Durant. When tuned in, Golden State is hard to beat.

The Nuggets are ready for the challenge after getting everyone’s best this season.

“As teams give us their best shot because we’re No. 1 in the West right now, everybody gives the Warriors their best shot,” said Murray, who is averaging 18.5 points. “We just know we have the home court, and we beat them last time here.”

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the MVP race, other NBA mid-season awards

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Patience is not the NBA community’s strong suit — we were talking MVP race the first week of the season.

Now, however, it’s time. Teams are more than halfway through the season and we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start discussing who is the frontrunners for all of the league’s end-of-season awards.

Is it James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?

Can anyone challenge Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year?

It’s a deep field for Coach of the Year, but is Mike Budenholzer the front-runner and can Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger or someone else catch him?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports talk about their picks at this point of the season and who is in the running long term.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan: Andre Roberson ‘not anywhere near playing’

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When Andre Roberson – who ruptured his patellar tendon last January then suffered a setback in October – suffered another setback in November, the Thunder said he’d miss at least six weeks.

That was more than six weeks ago.

Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman:

What a disappointing year for Roberson. He just can’t get healthy.

Even already possessing the NBA’s best defense, Roberson would help the Thunder. He’s a lockdown perimeter defender. Paul George has stepped up defensively, but a George-Roberson wing pairing would scare the daylights out of opposing offenses.

That said, Roberson is a tricky fit due to his dismal shooting. He’d disrupt Oklahoma City’s offensive spacing. The Thunder would need time to adjust, and if Roberson isn’t close to returning, there might not be time to establish chemistry before the playoffs.

George, Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines and Hamidou Diallo have been fine on the wing in Roberson’s absence. Continuing to rely on that group sans Roberson doesn’t maximize Oklahoma City’s production, but at least it’s a simple and workable solution.

Rumor: Grizzlies could trade Marc Gasol before he opts out and leaves next summer

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The Grizzlies have been unwavering in their desire to keep Marc Gasol. Likewise, Gasol has consistently pledged loyalty to Memphis.

But with the Grizzlies (19-24) slipping to 14th in the West and Gasol holding a $25,595,700 player option for next season, maybe both sides are approaching a breaking point.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

I doubt Gasol, who’ll turn 34 this month, would draw a higher salary in free agency than his $25,595,700 player option. But maybe he could get a multi-year deal that provides more overall compensation than he’d get opting in then testing free agency at age 35.

He also might value getting to a better team.

Gasol has sometimes sounded impatient with Memphis getting younger. He was clearly proud of the team’s veteran core.

The Grizzlies appeared intent on winning as much as possible with Gasol and Mike Conley rather than rebuilding. So, there seemed to be enough overlap in vision between the organization and Gasol.

But Memphis also just hit on its 2018 lottery pick, drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. No. 4. Jackson could be the Grizzlies’ next franchise player and convince them to shift gears. A core led by Jackson and whatever assets are acquired for Gasol could have a nice future. Ditto if Memphis also trades Conley, who’d make less sense on the team sans Gasol.

Remaining competitive with Gasol and Conley isn’t the worst place to be. The Grizzlies already have a major future building block in Jackson. They can groom him while winning enough to keep fans entertained. But that plan would fall apart if Gasol opts out and leaves.

So, being proactive could make sense.

The first step should be assessing Gasol’s commitment to Memphis. If he already knows he wants to leave next summer, I doubt he’d mind getting traded elsewhere now. An honest conversation about the future could serve everyone well.