The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Miami Heat, 92-90, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, improving their record to 20-15 on the season.
There's a type of satisfaction that comes with a job well done and there's another, far giddier version reserved for a job well done against the very best.
The Blazers were feeling the glowing effects of the latter version after a tight game that saw them erase a 13-point deficit and sneak out a win in the final two minutes, thanks to back-to-back Wesley Matthews three-pointers and wide open missed threes from Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers in the closing seconds.
LeBron James, the man, the myth, the legend, was only a man on Thursday. A man who nearly finished with a triple-double, tallying 15 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, but a man who watched with everyone else as Nicolas Batum make a series of game-changing plays before Matthews delivered the two game-winning threes. James, whose success in his Rose Garden visits has been well-chronicled, saw his streak of 33 consecutive games with 20 or more points this season end on a six-for-16 night.
"He got 15," Batum told Blazersedge. "I'm glad. Finally he didn't get 40 on me."
"I'm not the Portland Trail Blazers GM so I'm not going to assess every player they have on the team," he said.
The touch of testiness was understandable because Miami has now lost back-to-back games, because James shot just six-for-16 from the field, and because a game that Miami commanded for a vast majority of the 48 minutes swung on four three-point attempts, all going the wrong way for the Heat.
"They made more plays," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra stated. "Often times when you get to that point it's make or miss. They made theirs, we missed ours. ... I don't really have a problem with the last two and a half minutes of the game. That's a brawl. They made more plays at the end and we'll take our shots at the end. It's more [disappointing] when you have when you have a double-digit lead with our experience."
James said of the loss: "We understand that it hurts right now, but we'll be over it tomorrow."
Miami's lead evaporated largely thanks to Batum, who had ten of his 28 points in the fourth quarter, knocking down a key three-pointer midway through the period and then deflecting a pass and taking it in for a momentum-turning and-one lay-up in transition, drawing contact from Dwyane Wade while putting up a try that just avoided a James chasedown block attempt. Soon after, Batum was contesting a Wade runner on defense, forcing a stop. Soon after that, he was bringing in a tough offensive rebound, earning another trip to the foul line. Soon after that, he set up Matthews' first late three on a drive-and-kick.
Batum finished with 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block on eight-for-15 shooting. As those numbers suggest, he played fairly well throughout this game, but the closing minutes served as another example of him exerting his influence on an outcome, burst-like, through energy, intuitive defensive plays and increased confidence and control on offense. If in past seasons Batum drifted back and forth between ineffective and effective, he's now finding himself flipping a switch from solid starter to center of attention.
"That was coach Nate [McMillan], he was actually mad against me," Batum told Blazersedge. "[He would ask me], 'Why do you have to wait until we're down 15 before you turn the switch?' He told me that every time. 'Why can't you do it right from the jump?'"
There are moments now, Batum says, where he shifts modes, becoming more proactive and focused. The trigger, often, is a feeling of obligation to do better, perhaps a disgust with the status quo, a desperation when a game is slipping further away.
"I get mad," he says. "Now I got to step up. If not, we lose the game."
Aldridge, who witnessed McMillan's lectures to Batum, made a group of reporters laugh when asked if he can sense Batum flipping a switch late in games this season.
"That's not a good thing!", Aldridge exclaimed to Blazersedge. "I was with Nate for six years and he said he didn't like switches. I've been trained to not like switches."
Presented with the night's evidence -- the three, the steal, the offensive rebound, the dish -- Aldridge did put his training away for a moment.
"If [Batum] can do it, more power to him," he said. "We definitely need that switch. He definitely makes plays when we need it."
Lillard added: "Nic carried us almost the whole second half, making plays. ... Nic was able to get his hands on some balls, make some plays, turn them over and [we] take the lead."
The giddy satisfaction that comes with beating the best in dramatic fashion, even if only for one night, naturally carries a protective reflex too. Batum said clearly, repeatedly, that the Blazers didn't pilfer a win, that the story wasn't one of luck but of execution.
"We didn't steal this one," he told Blazersedge. "I don't think so. We were down but we just kept fighting. Against the Bobcats, down 18 with five minutes to go, yes, we stole that one. Of course we stole that one. I don't think we stole this one. It wasn't like the game was over."
His strong stretch ensured that the game came down to the wire and Matthews, who was playing sick and also through a re-tweaked left hip, delivered on two threes. The first came from the left corner on Batum's dish. The second was a high degree-of-difficulty shot against Allen with 26 seconds remaining, an attempt he seemed unable to resist.
"The play was for Nic to come off the pick and roll," Matthews, who finished with 18 points on seven-for-18 shooting and three-for-eight from deep, told Blazersedge. "They kind of blitzed him. I flashed up out of the corner to give him an outlet. I knew there was 10 seconds when he caught the ball so I had about eight or seven to myself. I took one dribble, I saw Ray back up a little bit, I had just hit one, I was feeling it, I let another one go."
If Batum was adamant that the Blazers won this game rather than stealing it, he was willing to allow that Matthews' second three was a break. Batum let out a long, slow whistle thinking about Matthews' step-back, contested, high-arching shot.
"It's the the type of shot, nooooo, yes! He shot the ball when we had time, we could get a two point shot. Step back... no... yes! You better make this one. You better make it."
This wasn't scolding or even second-guessing from Batum, just satisfied, smiling relief. For Matthews, the night was more of a drag than it looked. He was feeling sick, talking a bit hoarsely, and looking forward to getting some sleep in advance of Friday's home/road back-to-back against the Golden State Warriors.
"If I didn't shoot with confidence, it probably wasn't going in," Matthews said. "That's how this game works. If you believe, you play hard, you compete, you play the right way, you play with confidence, the Basketball Gods look out for you."
Matthews worked hard defensively on James and he had a lot of help. The Blazers' defense concentrated its efforts on preventing James from getting easy baskets in the paint for himself and it often left his Heat teammates with wide open dunks or quality looks at three-pointers. Chris Bosh, in particular, feasted on the open spaces created by James, finishing with 29 points and four rebounds on 13-for-18 shooting.
James not going for 40 mattered, from a basketball sense and also a psychological sense. No matter what NBA players are willing to say on the record, James is treated differently by all of his colleagues now, especially after his crowning in 2012. A somewhat neutral fan seated near media row expressed disappointment that James wasn't toying with the competition; total dominance is his baseline expectation now and for good reason. Not just for the folks paying gouged prices to see him play, but for the guys played millions to go against him too.
"He was huuuge," Lillard told Blazersedge of his first impression of playing on the same court as James. "He was a big dude. He moves just as fast as I do and he's just as strong as J.J. [Hickson]. The most athletic player in the league. It was crazy to see how hard he can pass the ball with one hand across the floor. Passes on the line. When he gets downhill, how strong he is moving with the ball, he just does everything well."
"My success is team success," he said. "Especially defensively against a guy like that. We were really showing a tight paint, not giving him too many driving angles."
Random Game Notes
- Here's video of Matthews' big threes via YouTube user BeyondTheBuzzer.
- This crowd was announced as a sellout and it was very early-arriving and loaded with a solid Heat contingent. Mike Acker of Rip City Project would like to point out that some Heat fans began filing out with the game tied at the 4:03 mark of the fourth quarter.
- Lillard finished with 10 points and eight assists on four-for-11 shooting. There was no question he was a centerpiece of Miami's defensive game-planning. The extra attention the Heat paid him seemed to make him a little bit reluctant and hesitant to shoot the ball in a few situations and he just never really got going. His lack of offensive impact made Batum's play that much more vital.
- Here's Lillard on the Heat's defense: "For me they really jumped hard on my pick-and-rolls. We run a lot of pick and rolls, it was up to me to get the ball out, make the right play, let somebody else make the next play. They cover a lot of ground, really athletic and fast. I thought we moved the ball and got the shots we needed to do to win."
- The one exception to those fast rotations was Mike Miller, who was a step or three late on multiple occasions.
- Lillard missed some free throws late and, as noted, was a bit hesitant throughout. He denied that the pressure of facing the defending champs or of playing on national televison impacted his late free throws: "I've missed two free throws at the end of a game before. We were still able to win the game. The next time I get two free throws I know they'll go in. It wasn't any pressure or anything like that, the ball just didn't go in."
- Asked to clarify whether he was officially guaranteeing a win against the Thunder on Sunday, Batum told Blazersedge: "We got nine against the defending champions so we can make it ten against OKC. I don't know if it's a guarantee but we're going to try everything to do it."
- Matthews on holding James under 20 points, the first time that's been done all season: "We'll take it. If he scored 20 and we won, it would be cool too."
- Matthews on his hip: "Yeah [I tweaked it]. It's alright though. We don't need to talk about that any more."
- LaMarcus Aldridge, like Lillard, struggled with his late-game foul shooting. If I'm reading NBA.com/AdvancedStats correctly, he's shooting 53 percent on free throws in the clutch this year compared to 81 percent overall.
- Matthews on his defensive approach to James: "Make everything tough. Make his catches tough. Make him work on the other end. Make him play some defense. Just make him shoot some contested shots."
- Lillard said he was not purchasing a block of tickets for friends and family for Friday night's game in his hometown of Oakland. Instead, he would be rounding up as many tickets as he could from his teammates to dole out. On his return to his hometown: "I'm excited about it. To play at home. It's another game. I can't go into this game thinking it's about me. Because it's not. It would be a good thing to play at home but I want to win the game."
- A cool photo of Lillard signing autographs upon the team's arrival in Oakland on Friday night viaBlazers Broadcasting's John Lukrofka.
- Lillard on where this win stacks up: "I think it's right at the top, who they are, defending champs, three of the best players in the league all on their team, and we're starting to get better as a team. We showed that we can compete with them. We can beat them. It just shows that we're getting better and better."
- Joel Freeland looked like he was set on slow motion.
- Major League Baseball star Felix Hernandez was in the house.
- This GIF of J.J. Hickson throwing a pass into the stands from CJZero is pretty great.
- Hickson was a mess, even though he finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. Popcorn stats. He shot three-for-11 and had his shots blocks numerous times, a number coming in key situations. He was out of position repeatedly on defense. You got the sense that Blazers coach Terry Stotts would have sat him longer if he had any reasonable alternatives.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's an understatement to say it's great to beat Miami. They're a great team, the defending champs. I have to hand it to our guys for sticking with it. You keep competing and playing through and finding away to win games. That's kind of what we did tonight. Kind of what we've been doing most of the season.
Matthews on LeBron
I thought he made him work. LeBron is a great player, he almost has a triple double and I thought we did a good job on him. Wes didn't really give him alleys to the basket. He got four of his points early in transition. Halfcourt defense, he did a nice job of taking away angles, forcing him to be a passer and keeping him away from the rim.
Very simple: just keep playing hard, finding ways to win games, stay together. Not really a lot to say after a game like that.
Everybody was big. Wes makes the two shots. Nic makes the defensive play and the three-point play. LaMarcus got rebounds. There were a lot of big plays in the fourth quarter. Like I told them before the game, get it to the fourth quarter, we've been good in the fourth quarters. We made defensive plays and that fed some of our offense. That's part of what we have to do.
What win means on the season
I don't know if it has context right now. Maybe in a couple weeks, in a couple months. Right now it's about a team that's growing together, finding ways to win games, defending home court. That's a continuation of what we've been trying to build.
.375 shooting from the field and win
I asked our PR director if we had won a game this season shooting 37 percent. He hasn't gotten back to me on that yet. I tell you, I asked that question, honestly I did. You win a game against a team like Miami, any team, but you win a game against a team like Miami, shooting 37 percent, it means you're giving effort defensively, it means you're rebounding the ball, it means you're staying with it, offensive rebounds, extra possessions, a lot of little things that keep you in the game.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter