The Blazers’ win in Orlando on Monday put them in position to do something fairly special tonight. One should never oversell wins early in the season, nor count chickens before they hatch, but a victory tonight would put Portland in position for a respectable 3-2 finish to this road trip with a chance at an amazing 4-1. Any kind of winning finish to this five-game jaunt would cement Portland’s status as a team that’s winning despite not yet having found itself. And that, friends, is as apt of a description of a playoff-ready team as I can think of. Think back over the years how many times the L*kers or Spurs or Suns have come to town and pulled out victories. Blazer fans said, “It was so close! How unjust that they won. They weren’t even playing that well!” That’s exactly how it happens in the NBA. Sentiment aside, the good team isn’t the one that plays above its head and narrowly loses. The good team is the one that looked mediocre but still had enough to pull out the win. So far that’s what the Blazers have been doing. It would be nice to keep it up (or better) tonight.
The nice thing is, this is really a no-lose contest for Portland. If the Blazers do get beat it doesn’t say they’re a bad team or not playoff-ready. It just means they had the chance to perform beyond expectations and ended up at the bar instead of above it. This is exactly why that Orlando win was so nice. We have a bunch to gain and not much to lose tonight.
On to the matchup…
A Look at the Heat
Miami is playing well to start the season. They’re 1-3 on the road but 3-0 at home, notching wins over New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Sacramento. If you thought Dwight Howard was having a monster run this season, check out Dwyane Wade’s line:
27.1 pts, 48% shooting (from a guard), 7.6 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 steals, 1.9 blocks per game.
Ouch. If he were any nastier this game would have to include a black “Censored” bar over his play. This is a problem. Portland has trouble with huge centers, true, but nothing causes the Blazers fits like a slashing shooting guard. You’re never surprised to see these guys go above their averages against the Blazers, which for Wade is going to require a scientific calculator to tabulate. And it’s not like he’s averaging 45 minutes a game either. This is coming in 36 minutes…three quarters of play.
Wade’s supporting cast is still finding its footing. Rookie Michael Beasley is showing offensive chops already, scoring 17 a game. He’s shooting under 44%, however, which is low even for a new-era power forward. Shawn Marion is doing even worse, scoring 10.4 per game, barely clearing 41%. (This from a career 48% shooter.) Marion is grabbing 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 of them offensive, and posting decent block and steal totals. He missed the Heat’s last game but will play this evening.
One thing none of Miami’s Big Three are doing is shooting the ball well from distance. Wade and Beasley are at 25%, Marion at 33%.
After the headliners, Miami is populated with some pretty decent role players, some of whom are also having trouble finding their footing. Udonis Haslem is an old-school power forward, good in the post and rebounding. Having Dwyane Wade as the second guard allows Miami to ride with a couple of young players at point. Rookie Mario Chalmers is getting after it defensively already but is having trouble scoring. His minutes are slowly getting eaten by second-year point Chris Quinn who has been on fire this week and is shooting 48% overall and 65% from the three-point line. Sophomore Daequan Cook backs up Wade while former Nugget (and winner of the coveted NBA “My Name Sounds Like an Intestinal Disease” award for the second year straight) Yakhouba Diawara spells Marion. Neither of the latter two players is off to an impressive start though Cook had his best game of the season Monday against New Jersey. Journeyman center Mark Blount completes the regular rotation. Most of these guys are either young or new to the team, which explains the inconsistency off of Miami’s bench.
The most striking ingredient to Miami’s success so far has been their turnover differential. Nobody but Dwyane Wade coughs the ball up for Miami. (Wade has committed 4.3 turnovers per game so far.) Meanwhile they force 19 a game from opponents, featuring a sickening 10.3 steal per game rate, for almost a +7 difference. Though much of the team shoots poorly the offense gets easier when they get their looks before the opposition sets up. Their backcourt is the key to this style of game and they’re plenty good at what they do. You cannot relax or get distracted against the Heat and your guards better prepare to be badgered all game long.
The Heat shoot well and defend fairly well overall. They are not a good rebounding team. They shoot a lot of free throws but they also commit a lot of fouls. Predictably Wade is a free-throw generating machine. You have to be careful not to foul out all of your shooting guards and half of your help-ready interior players trying to stop his drives.
For all of you stat hounds out there, Zach sends this link from 82games.com which shows that the Heat are running a negative PER at every position so far this year, including shooting guard. (As pointed out in the comments, this was last year's PER. My fault for not looking more carefully.)
Keys to the Game
1. The key to beating Miami so far has been twofold. First, make Wade shoot a ton of shots to get his points. He’ll always notch them but there’s a difference between 40% and 50% shooting for him. Part of that difference is the number of shots left over for the rest of the players, which brings up the second key: Don’t let more than one of them in addition to Wade go off. Stay home, keep in front of your man, and keep your hand in his face. 30, 16, and a bunch of 9’s in the scoring column for Miami gives you a shot to win.
2. They’re going to turn you over so you need to get back and prevent those turnovers from turning into easy points. Also you’re a leg up if you can also force turnovers from them. Relative points off of turnovers should be a big stat in this game.
3. The Blazers can outrebound this team so they should.
4. Bench…domination. Call the blitz when the second units are in. All-out, guns blazing, go-go-go! If Greg Oden plays off of Portland’s bench…
5. Speaking of, if Big Greg does play, did you hear me talk about a real center much for Miami? Think G.O. might be able to bull his way to 10 points on 5 dunks tonight?
6. With just a couple exceptions try to force the Heat outside. You could get away with some zone tonight.
7. Last but not least, please get back in transition. I can’t think of a better way to make Shawn Marion feel good about himself again than to let him run free.
Storylines to Watch
1. Do Roy and Oden Play?
Roy has back spasm. Oden has spasms people haven’t invented yet. There’s a huge difference between Brandon going or not. If he can’t maybe Greg could ease some of that sting.
2. Who Guards Wade?
Even if he plays, Roy won’t want that assignment all night. Batum? Blake? Or does Brandon give it the college try? Either way we have some latitude giving help from the center position tonight as long as we don’t let Haslem get free dunks off of it.
3. Who Handles the Ball for Portland?
The Blazers have been experimenting with different people bringing it up the court. With defenders like Wade and Chalmers that could backfire. Watch to see what the Portland game plan is for dealing with pesky backcourt defenders. Point forward anyone?
4. Interior Dominance vs. Super Wings
Miami doesn’t have the bigs to deal with Lamarcus Aldridge or Greg Oden all night. A good showing from the Blazer post players would help offset any deficit Portland might run at the wing positions.
5. Will the Blazers Step Up?
Young teams sometimes win without knowing why they won. A sure sign of that is them coming out the next game like they’ve never seen this strange, orange orb. What is it? Bask-eet-bawl? The Blazers have a chance to define themselves as a step beyond just a young team tonight.
This matchup is plenty groovy, not just because of the chance to see Miami’s new lineup, but because the teams are fairly evenly matched. I said before the Orlando game that the Blazers would have an excellent effort in one of the next two contests. They gave it against the Magic. This game is another one that will probably be great or a complete flop. (Don’t worry…I won’t say that again Friday.) Great would be a lot more exciting.
Check out the Heat point of view at PeninsulaIsMightier.com.
Don’t forget the game starts at 5:00 Pacific and will be televised on ESPN.