The Miami Heat defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 107-93, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, dropping Portland's record to 18-18.
This win was so routine LeBron James didn't even need to spank himself.
After delivering the three-point dagger, after another night polka-dotted with jaw-dropping highlights and uncanny defensive plays, James passed on a repeat of his 2011 derriere self-discipline. Who could blame him? He might as well save the conversation-starting, game-ending celebrations for contests with real drama. Besides, James had ice on his right wrist after the game, the product of dunking too forcefully (seriously). Better to rest it, all things considered.
James has had some impressive performances at the Rose Garden in recent years, including 44 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists and a fanny whack after he delivered a January 2011 win. On Thursday, he arguably topped that performance, posting a stat line that will surely go down as the best by a Blazers opponent this season: 38 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals, 1 block on 13-22 shooting from the field, 2-2 from deep and 10-12 from the free throw line in 41 minutes. Perhaps most impressively, given his end to end, dive on the floor, sky above the rim night, James committed zero turnovers. His player efficiency number was so good it would take the combined brainpower of the entire Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to determine. They don't make calculators that count that high.
They also don't make step ladders tall enough or brooms long enough to help Portland's defenders attempt to stop the following feat of sport, a play only one NBA player is capable of making.
As Heat All-Star guard Dwyane Wade stepped in front of a lazy pass on the perimeter and headed for open court, James covered ground so quickly trailing the play, in anticipation of the ensuing highlight, that he had to measure his steps slightly as he waited for Wade to loft a pass skyward. Wade admitted that he didn't even bother to aim.
"I just throw it, I didn't even look," said Wade, who finished with 33 points, 10 assists, 2 rebounds, 3 steals and a block. "The guy can go get anything. He makes me look good. I just throw it up and he goes to get it."
"You can see, they give the look," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "The ball goes up there and I think it surprises everybody, but they know where it's going. They have a great connection."
James' path met the pass roughly equal with the protected circle and well off the ground, and he used just one hand to catch, secure and punish the basketball through the rim in a single brutish jackhammer.
Plays like that helped James and the Heat suck the drama from this game early, as Miami built a 25-point lead before taking their foot off the gas ever so slightly as the nationally-televised, commercially-interrupted second half dragged on. Portland never proved that it could stop Miami's quick-strike, ball-moving attack, so when the game started to tighten up just a touch the Heat had full confidence they could blow it back open. And that's what they did.
The feeling in the Heat locker room was universal: the overall quality of play was never this good last year and the James/Wade tandem has never been more effective.
"The year and a half has definitely helped us," James said. "We're just playing basketball at an all-time high, as far as us together."
"We have good chemistry," Wade added. "We showcase it every night, playing off of each other very well. We're in a groove. Overall, our rhythm as a team is there."
The James/Wade duo didn't skip a beat without its third All-Star wheel, Chris Bosh, who missed the game due to a death in his family. The beat of their winning drum is deafening. Miami notched its ninth straight win and its 12th in 13 games. Miami is 20-3 over the last six weeks. Barring an injury to James or Wade, Miami will win the NBA Finals in six games or less. That was the only conclusion one could reach after watching this stomping.
"They've got two great players over there, LeBron and Dwyane were on top of their games tonight," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said with the flat tone you might use in running down a shopping list. "I thought our guys really worked hard to try to force those guys to shoot the ball over the top. They did that but they made them. There really wasn't an opportunity to get a lot of double teams to them. It's a tough match-up when you have guys like that who can score and are willing passers. They can find and hurt you from the three point line. They were on top of their games tonight."
Inside, outside, it didn't matter. Wade flew by Portland's defenders when he wanted to, breezed through them when he pleased. He left a gorgeous dump off pass for forward Udonis Haslem once his paint forays started attracting attention and Miami hit 6 of its 11 threes to totally stretch Portland's defense. Throughout, James was on "force of nature" status, that next level of play he can reach where it seems foolhardy to consider the NBA's MVP anything but a one-man race.
"No excuses," Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge said dejectedly, after scoring 20 points, grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing 4 assists in the loss. Aldridge began well, with 8 first quarter points, but Miami adjusted its defense, limiting his effectiveness, and that was that.
Earlier this season, Aldridge said that he thought Portland could compete for the Western Conference title. On Thursday, he was clearly processing some deflated expectations, as Portland currently sits outside the West playoff picture.
"We have a lot of talent, I never saw us being in this position, but now we're here," he said. "We put ourselves in this hole and now we have to dig out of it... It's just frustrating. I definitely want to win every night and I'm definitely leaving it all out there we're just not getting wins... It's only so much talking you can do. We can't keep running around talking... we have to go do it."
Blazers center Marcus Camby, who again played just over 20 minutes on Thursday, voiced that same "enough talk" conclusion a few weeks back. Nothing has appeared to change since then and it's unlikely anything will change going forward, barring a roster shake-up. McMillan has played his rotation change cards, with mixed results, and there isn't much left at this point that hasn't already been tried.
It was probably fitting that the loss dropped Portland to .500 because the Blazers have not looked so average at home against a top team in recent years. There was some effort but not pluck, scoring but no momentum, defense but no real stops. Portland had three chances in the fourth quarter to hit three-pointers to make it a game. The first two missed and Blazers forward Nicolas Batum hit the third, only to have James come down on the ensuing possession to answer with the dagger three of his own. It was an almost unnecessary flourish at the end of a sterling night, not a true exclamation point. James reacted in kind, going on about his business afterwards. This wasn't a win for the ages, merely a win for the night.
"This is a tough place to play," Spoelstra said, summing it up. "So we'll take it and move on, and the trip gets tougher."
The methodical way Miami picked Portland apart -- on offense, with its ball movement and paint scoring, and on defense with quick hands, connected perimeter defenders and charge-taking -- seemed to leave McMillan at that second level of demoralization. He, like everyone else, sized up Miami's match-up advantages, watched their execution unfold, witnessed the speed, grace, athleticism, two-way unselfishness and, most of all, their unity, and came to the realization that a professional loss -- defeat with dignity -- was the best possible outcome for his club.
Portland managed to accomplish that, keeping the final score respectable by mounting what is becoming a patented early fourth quarter push against a team that is way up, only to give up the tug-of-war by the final whistle.
"That team is a good team," McMillan said when asked why he didn't appear particularly angry or down. "They came out aggressive as we thought they would and sometimes they try to take your heart right from the start. Sometimes teams fold the tent. I didn't think our guys did that tonight... For the most part I thought we kept competing."
Sure, if we agree to use an extremely loose definition of "competing." In the end, this wasn't a competition between anything except James and the rest of the sports world for spots on the nightly top-10 highlights. Post-game, his play drew a horde of more than 100 fans to the locker room tunnel, where they fought and shoved for his towel and headband, and to catch an up-close glimpse of the NBA's best player.
No basketball fan in attendance could have regretted paying to see this performance in person, regardless of how much the tickets cost. The bad news for the NBA: He'll do it again, or something similar, at least two more times this week and 10+ times this month. This is a man playing like a machine. James will never be Michael Jordan but he's never been closer.
Random Game Notes
- Portland Trail Blazers center Joel Przybilla received multiple standing ovations and had his name chanted as he somewhat unexpectedly made his season debut one game early because forward Kurt Thomas was not yet cleared for action after suffering a concussion on Wednesday night.
- Przybilla wound up being the bright spot on the team, as he certainly exceeded my (minimal) expectations with two blocks and six rebounds. Przybilla played 19 minutes instead of the 15 minute max that McMillan had planned on entering the game. McMillan's praise for Przybilla's debut is below.
- Here's iPhone video from inside the Rose Garden of Przybilla's first entrance into the game and the crowd reaction. He checked in to start the second quarter.
- "It felt good being back out there with the guys, a great good of guys," Przybilla said. "More importantly, just playing basketball back in this city. It meant a lot to me with the fans. I've enjoyed my career here, it's a special place for myself and my family."
- Dusty Harrah of 1080 AM The Fan reports that Przybilla said he was specifically told by referees not to look at James and that he wasn't sure why. There were some chippy exchanges in this game, although no full-fledged incidents.
- Former Blazers forward Scottie Pippen was in attendance at the Rose Garden.
- "Portlandia" star Carrie Brownstein was, too, and she got a LaMarcus Aldridge jersey "with a bird on it."
- Dwyane Wade on LaMarcus Aldridge's chances to make Team USA for the 2012 Olympics: "I don't know. There's so many talented players. I can't discredit none of the players. Whoever makes it, we have to give them a nod and say they are worthy... There are only so many spots, luckily it's not my call."
- LeBron James on Brandon Roy and Greg Oden: "It's unfortunate that injuries have plagued them. Force Brandon Roy to retire, force Greg not to be in action as much as he wanted to. I've seen Greg since he was in high school and off to college at Ohio State, who I'm a big supporter of. He had a promising start to his career. We all know about Brandon Roy, an All-Star, a multi-year All-Star, injuries plagued him as well. It's unfortunate and I wish them the best."
- Matt Calkins of The Columbian reported that the Rose Garden jumbotron montage honoring center Joel Przybilla's return included the phrase, "He took his talents to Cannon Beach."
- Signs in the stands included "Nic-Sanity" with a picture of Batum and, "I like Baloney too," honoring Aldridge's "Portlandia" cameo. A gorilla also had a sign that read, "I'm not taking my talents to South Beach."
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Too much talent for you tonight?
They've got two great players over there, LeBron and Dwyane were on top of their games tonight. I thought our guys really worked hard to try to force those guys to shoot the ball over the top. They did that but they made them. There really wasn't an opportunity to get a lot of double teams to them. It's a tough match-up when you have guys like that who can score and are willing passers. They can find and hurt you from the three point line. They were on top of their games tonight.
Did you expect to play Joel Przybilla 19 minutes?
No, I really didn't. His limit was 15. He was feeling good, we kept asking him questions, about how he was feeling. He went over by 4 but we wanted to try to keep him between 10 and 15.
How did Przybilla play?
I thought he did some good things, things that we need at the five position. Setting screens, clogging the paint, he rotated over, he had a couple blocked shots. He forced guys to alter their shots a couple of times. I thought he did a nice job.
You don't seem really upset?
That team is a good team. They came out aggressive as we thought they would and sometimes they try to take your heart right from the start. Sometimes teams fold the tent. I didn't think our guys did that tonight. They kept scrapping. We had a slow second quarter that was the big quarter for us. For the most part I thought we kept competing.
Camby played 20 minutes
Yeah, Joel was giving us some good minutes.
Wesley Matthews had a good game
I thought both he and Nic and Gerald tried to fight Wade and LeBron defensively. Offensively we wanted to make those guys defend by running Wesley and Nic and Gerald and those guys off some screens. I thought Wesley did a nice job both ways of defending and freeing himself up and knocking down some shots.
Entering a danger zone?
You know that it's the second half of the season, it's going to go quick. As I mentioned before, every game is important. When you drop games, you certainly are losing ground. Definitely danger zone. Any loss in this short season hurts.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter