The Miami Heat suffering a pretty brutal defeat to the Denver Nuggets on national TV Thursday night, with LeBron James benched by a sprained ankle. Everybody freak out! Or don't, because this is both completely unsurprising and completely understandable.
Lest I be called a Heat apologist and burned at the stake, let's get analytical. First: duh, LeBron is good, important and good. There's a reason he's on top of SBNation.com's highly scientific MVP Power Rankings. He's playing like an MVP; being that MVP stands for "most valuable player," it follows that LeBron is pretty valuable to the Heat. Ergo, if LeBron sits with an injury, the Heat will always be worse off for it ... no matter how many All-Stars the team accrues.
But there's also the matter of the opposition, the Nuggets. As it turns, the Denver Nuggets, despite all these trade rumors about Carmelo Anthony, are pretty darned good. Denver is now 22-16, a half-game out of the No. 6 spot out West. That conference is still stacked; while the East may be newly top-heavy with the Heat, Celtics, Bulls and Magic, the West runs far deeper. In other words, the Nuggets have the same record as the New York Knicks, but against a tougher schedule. (By the way, the Nuggets are No. 7 in the West with the aforementioned 22-16 record. No. 7 in the East: the 16-20 Indiana Pacers. Yeah.)
More? More. Denver is one of the toughest places to play. Since 2003-04 (when 'Melo and LeBron entered the league and the Nuggets got good), only the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks have more home wins. Some of that is the fact that the Nuggets have been quite good for a while now. But that special Rocky Mountain home court advantage is a huge factor. To wit: The Nuggets are just No. 10 in road wins over that span.
Since 2003-04, the Nuggets are 226-82 (.733) at home and 134-170 (.440) on the road. That's a real home court advantage! Mix in that the Heat were on a back-to-back after a Pacific Coast late game, missing their best player on both ends ... you see why a loss, even a blow-out loss, should not be reason for shock or concern.
Miami has a tough finish to its road trip, visiting the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night. If LeBron can't go, expect the Heat -- even with rest, even with less daunting conditions -- to have a rough slog but to put up a better effort.