The lesson you appreciate before games such as these against LeBron James is that nothing good comes out of casting a defender as your team’s LeBron stopper.
There has been no such thing over these past 17 seasons.
So, instead, expected Derrick Jones Jr. merely to again give that end of the court his best shot when the Miami Heat face James and the Los Angeles Lakers at 7 p.m. Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Having aced his Tuesday test against Trae Young when he helped limit the dynamic Atlanta Hawks guard to two points over the fourth quarter and overtime, Jones likely will find himself moving up in weight class, as he assists Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and others in the James assignment.
“My teammates and coaches, they have the faith in me that they know my athleticism, my length, I can cover a lot of ground,” the 6-foot-6 forward said. “I’m never going to give up on a play.”
He didn’t against the Hawks, whether it was arriving to trap Young, or take the one-on-one challenge.
With Butler required to do so much else as part of what now routinely is turning into triple-doubles, and with Justise Winslow dealing with a lower-back strain, the return of Jones from a strained left hip has helped activate the Heat trapping defense.
“I feel like he’s an extra defender,” Adebayo said. “He matches my standard, and my standard for Derrick was always be yourself — get stops, be active, get rebounds.”
With NBA offenses increasingly focusing on a featured scorer, the Heat increasingly have gone to trapping defenses that maximize agile, athletic, aggressive defenders such as Jones and Adebayo.
“We try to limit the best player to certain shots and certain amounts of breathing room,” Adebayo said. “We want the other players to make plays. That’s no disrespect to teammates.”
For Jones, that means not only forcing the player he is covering to give up the ball, but then blanketing to make sure there is no return pass.
“Once you get the ball out of his hands, they want to get it right back,” he said. “So once you stop them from getting it back to him, now they’re stuck with five seconds on the clock. Now they’ve got to rush something.”
A year ago, it was the active defense of Jones and Adebayo that allowed the Heat to thrive with a zone approach. This season, it has been smothering the opposition’s leading man, big or small.
“Gonna do the same thing against ‘Bron,” Jones said. “Whenever he comes off that screen, he’s getting trapped, and let somebody else make the play.”
The Lakers, of course, also have Anthony Davis, as well as several capable shooters, certainly more than the unpolished youth of the Hawks.
No problem, Jones, 22, said. The legs are willing.
“Like we say, we’re the best conditioning team in the league,” he said. “I don’t really get tired out there.”
The irony, Butler said, is that the ability of Jones and Adebayo to seemingly be in two places at once has actually led to slippage elsewhere.
“It helps everybody on the defensive end. Those two guys are out there covering so much space,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, they can make up for some other people’s lapses. And I think too many of our guys — I’m including myself — we take that for granted, thinking like, ‘Hey, we can gamble, we can make a mistake. I know Bam’s here; I know DJ is going to get there.’
“I think when we start doing our job, they’ll still play the same way with their high energy. And then if we do mess up, they’ll be there for us.”
Just as Jones was there to make sure Young wouldn’t be there for the Hawks when needed most.
“That’s how I try to play every game, go out there and let my defense start my game,” Jones said. “If I got a stop, if I get a fast break, that’s where I get my offense going. But in the halfcourt, I’m going to lock down.”