LeBron James' better is better than your better, and when he deigns to make a true effort, to lock in and reach his potential, he can mount a comeback that leaves everyone breathless. He did just that tonight, scoring 22 of his season-high 44 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to lead his Miami Heat past the Portland Trail Blazers, 107-100, at the Rose Garden.
Last year, James' Cavaliers won 106-94 and James had 41 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. This year, James' Heat won 107-100 and James had 44 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. The results were strikingly similar, but the man behind the numbers did seem different before the game, and I was all set to laud his newfound maturity after listening to him patiently answer monotonous questions about the "Heatles."
He may have sounded and looked older, the childish gleam gone, but, with the game on the line, the same old James -- the same old polarizing James -- revealed himself.
What is it about James and his rear end that captures the spotlight during his visits to Portland? Almost a year ago to the day, James' posterior was slapped by a teenage fan during pre-game shootaround, a strange show of support to a mega-star that sparked an ugly string of profanities from the self-appointed chosen one.
In 2011, the fanny-slap was front-and-center and self-inflicted, an ostentatious show of bow-to-my-greatness and respect-me-even-though-you-hate-me that makes Portland's incessant three goggling look downright discreet by comparison. The royal spank followed a huge three-pointer in overtime, one of many James buckets that helped seal Portland's fate. Roll the tape.
Armchair psychoanalysts will have a field day with that one.
All the scoring and the celebration by James spoiled a very, very good night for LaMarcus Aldridge, who not only rose to the challenge against a premier defense, but actively punished Chris "Tagalong" Bosh, dominating their chest-to-chest battles and in the stat sheets, where Aldridge finished with 31 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists to Bosh's 18 points and eight boards.
Unfortunately for Portland, Aldridge was deserted at exactly the wrong moment by his teammates, as the Blazers couldn't find an outside complement down the stretch. Somewhat inexplicably, point guard Patty Mills, the only Blazers backcourt man to get anything going, saw himself pulled from the game late in favor of starter Andre Miller, who sat for nearly the entire fourth quarter.
Blazers coach Nate McMillan explained his decision to sub in Miller for Mills for the critical fourth quarter stretch -- including the final possession of regulation, which saw Miller miss potential game-winning two jumpers -- by pointing to the defensive end of the floor. "Offensively we were getting some good things, but on the defensive end of the floor they were trying to take advantage of that match-up out on the floor. So we went back and forth with Miller and Patty."
The Heat did bring Mills into some high screen-and-rolls late in the game, which presented a mismatch when Mills had to switch out onto James, as James was free to fire over the top of him as if he wasn't there. But Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez were a combined 4-20 from deep, and while Mills was only 1-5 from downtown himself, he had succeeding in finding cracks in Miami's defense by cutting to the hoop and pulling up in the mid-range.
Would Mills have made the difference? Maybe, but I suppose that depends on how much you believe in the inevitability of James' dominance. The Blazers, despite not playing perfectly, had an excellent chance, up late. Aside from allowing some early leak outs and a few uncontested dunks, Portland played solid team defense, a performance that would have been good enough to beat many teams."We had it, we had it, we had it," lamented Matthews.
"He was hitting big shots, and we couldn't do anything about it," Matthews said, slumped in his chair and staring at his hands.
Random Game Notes
- Betcha can't watch Nicolas Batum's block of a LeBron James layup just once.
- By request, here's video of an apparent LeBron James fourth-quarter double-dribble that wasn't called. In the super slow motion replay, it appears that Dwyane Wade touches the ball, making the sequence extremely sloppy, but legal.
- Dante Cunningham chose the pre-game warm-up music: "Whip my hair," by Willow.
- Wesley Matthews is really becoming the posterboy for Shake.
- Former Portland Trail Blazers Vice President of Basketball Operations Tom Penn was in the building tonight, taking in the action on behalf of ESPN. Penn joined ESPN.com's Ryen Russillo on the NBA Today podcast last week for a lengthy chat. Stream it here.
- Joe Freeman has some interesting quotes from Miller about not playing down the stretch. "But Miller insisted Sunday night he's not looking for extra rest. 'Rest for what? Where are we going? What do I need rest for? There's never been a problem with playing both minutes. No need (for me) to sit over there and rest. But Patty was doing a good job and the team was in a good rhythm so I can understand what he was doing.'
- The play of the night was James boxing out to position himself for a deep outlet pass and then hook-and-laddering it back to Chris Bosh for the transition hoop. The sequence combined just about every trait you want a basketball player to display.
- The Sean Marks highlight of the night received a DNP-CD. :(
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
What went wrong down the stretch?
They made shots. I think we had a couple of turnovers in overtime. LeBron and Wade made some big shots.
Spread the floor. We want to make sure we get the last shot in that situation. I thought Dre got fouled on that play. We had them look at it. In that situation, tie ball game, you want to make sure you get the last shot at the basket. I thought when he came off the screen he got bumped. A high pick and roll with Dre and LaMarcus and spread the floor with Rudy and Wesley and Nic out there.
Tough loss against a team like this
They all are tough. Making plays down the stretch. Getting stops. I think LeBron came down, several trips, and just shot them back into the game. You've got to make plays, you've got to get stops, you've got to score.
Any thought to going to LaMarcus straight away on last possession
Yeah, you know, spread the floor, but in that situation we went with a pick and roll to run the clock down. Try and get the last shot with the spread floor.
I thought our guys certainly played hard and well. Played well enough to win this game. We didn't shoot the ball well, we battled enough to give ourselves a chance.
I thought Nic did a pretty good job, he scored for us. Defensively I thought early he did a nice job of defending LeBron, just making him work. Second-half, he goes nuts.
Last time you've seen someone lock in like that?
He's capable. He's done that here before. He's made some shots down the stretch. It's just like he knocks down a shot and he gets it going. We've seen that here before.
Can you let go of the loss because LeBron was great?
They did make shots. We needed to make some plays going down the stretch. We have an opportunity, they miss a shot, we can go up 3 or 4 late in the game, but they didn't do that. We were able to match them, in the sense of getting deep post position for LA. But it comes down to both.
5/24 from outside
Well, we want to play from the inside-out. Go into LA. If they take that away, then you've got to take the shots that are there. I thought we had some good looks but we didn't knock down some shots that we normally knock down. I thought LA did a good job of establishing the post.
Patty played a lot down the stretch
He had some scoring offensively for us. They went to trying to get the switch. Offensively we were getting some good things, but on the defensive end of the floor they were trying to take advantage of that match-up out on the floor. So we went back and forth with Miller and Patty. But Patty is doing some good things, he's knocking down some shots for us.
Will you continue to give Mills fourth quarter minutes?
In the rhythm of the game, the way he was playing tonight, we've stuck with that lineup before when things are going well. Offensively we needed to be able to spread the floor and he was knocking down some shots.
James isn't a great three-point shooter but he does it in the Rose Garden
Yeah. He's improved. I know last year or two years ago we felt like we had him under control and we go behind a screen and he knocks down a three. I just recall he came down and knocked down three... I recall that game. But it was very similar, it was like he kind of flips a switch. Wade was good the first quarter. LeBron was even better. His shot is improved. What you want is him taking some of those shots. Some of those shots we had him covered, but you want him taking jump shots and not getting to the free throw line.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter