The Miami Heat come into the Moda Center tonight after winning eight of ten games to face the Blazers and unfortunately, Heat center Greg Oden will not be making an appearance.
Miami is playing on the second night of a back-to-back set that kicked off with an overtime loss in Sacramento last night, but center Chris Andersen and guards Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade all sat out nursing various ailments. All three played a few nights ago against the Lakers, but only Wade is likely to return tonight as the injury statuses of Andersen and Allen remain "day-to-day."
James and Wade have been scoring ridiculously efficiently lately, both hitting over 60 percent of their field-goal attempts in their last several games. Both are elite finishers, with James converting on over 80 percent of his attempts at the hoop this season and Wade not far behind at about 73 percent at the rim. Big man Chris Bosh is in on the paint-scoring action this season, too, connecting on almost 69 percent of his shots inside.
Needless to say, the Heat like to attack the basket. If you've been following the Blazers at all this season, you know that preventing opponents from scoring inside has been tough with coach Terry Stotts placing more emphasis on preventing opponents from beating his team from the outside -- so far the strategy has been successful, as Portland sits at 24-5 and allows fewer outside attempts per game than any other team in the league.
Tonight, the Blazers might have to shift the focus a little more to the middle, because Miami's most willing outside shooter is Allen, who will likely miss the game. He attempts more threes than any other Heat player with four per contest, contrasting with Portland's outside-shooting arsenal that features four players who take more deep shots than Allen, Miami's leader in three-pointers attempted.
The Heat take an average amount of threes and have some good outside shooters in Wade and point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole -- James and veteran forwards Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis have all been slumping from deep the last couple weeks -- but they are definitely the most efficient team in the NBA from within the arc. Miami attempts fewer field-goals than any team in the league but makes more than all but four teams and outscores all but five of them on a nightly basis. Essentially, The Heat don't take a lot of shots, but they convert on them more efficiently than anyone.
James gets his points almost every game regardless of the opponent, and even on his worst nights he still usually hits about half his shots. When Wade and Bosh's scoring opportunities are tampered, though, the Heat are much more beatable, even if James goes off. Still, Miami has only lost seven games this year, so there's no proven blueprint to consistently beat them even with various rotation players dinged-up all season.
The Heat's main weakness is on the boards. They're a predictably poor offensive-rebounding team because they have fewer opportunities for rebounds on that end than any team in the league, but they also struggle to secure opponents' misses, as well. The Blazers, on the other hand, grab their own misses better than almost anyone and should also be able to grab a lot of the shots that don't fall for the Heat. Miami loses the battle on the glass almost every game, but if they're removed from the defensive boards, the Heat's chances of winning decrease dramatically. The same could be said for most teams, but offensive-rebounding is a huge strength of the Blazers and Miami can be bullied on the defensive-glass, so it should be a point of emphasis for Portland tonight.
Lately, only center Robin Lopez has shot well for the Blazers. Point guard Damian Lillard, wings Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum and backup forward Dorell Wright have all shot pretty poorly the last stretch of games. Guard Mo Williams and forward LaMarcus Aldridge have really seen their shooting percentages in the tank as of late, even as Portland's won seven of its last eight games. The Blazers have gotten by on volume shooting by Lillard and Aldridge, with timely contributions from Matthews, Batum, Williams and Lopez. Portland has also gotten a nice chunk of points at the line, as the team's ball-handlers have been aggressive lately drawing fouls, a good plan considering the Blazers are one of the most accurate free-throw shooting teams in the league. Miami doesn't send opponents to the line particularly often, but they'll likely be tired for tonight's game after going to overtime in Sacramento yesterday and fatigue might force them into fouling Portland's shooters more often.
The Blazers' three-point shooting barrage has cooled off considerably the last five games, with Lillard's 43.8 outside-shooting percentage the highest on the team. The next best conversion rate from deep for Portland is the 33.3 percent shared by Matthews and Wright, followed by Williams at 32 percent and Batum at 30.6 percent. Still, by sheer volume of attempts, the Blazers manage to make more threes than any team in the NBA, even with all but Lillard's deep-shooting slumping in recent weeks. Opposing teams have been launching three-pointers against Miami lately, so don't be surprised to see Portland's outside attempts total climb well into the thirties tonight.
Even if the Blazers underperform in three-point conversion, Portland's offense features enough deep threats that Miami coach Erik Spoelstra will still have to emphasize defense of the perimeter, which could open up lanes for Lillard and Williams to drive aggressively, allowing more space for Aldridge and Lopez to operate down low.
The Heat garner the most steals in the NBA and force more turnovers than anyone. The Blazers hold onto the ball well, but they'll face a huge challenge against Miami's aggressive defense. Turnovers could be a legitimate factor for Portland; On Thursday night, Clippers point guard Chris Paul had six steals by himself in the loss to the Blazers. Wade, Chalmer and James can all rack up steals.
The Heat come into this matchup with a weakened rotation and fresh off of a tough overtime loss to the Kings last night. The Blazers have been playing teams to the last few possessions lately, so expect another game that goes all four quarters -- possibly more, considering the very recent history of both them and the Heat.
If the Blazers control the glass, limit their own turnovers, capitalize on second-chance opportunities and see steady production from their starters, they should have a good shot at knocking out the defending NBA champs tonight. Of course, James has been the league's MVP four of the last five seasons and his reliable contributions from all over the court are all but inevitable at this point. Neutralizing James' teammates -- particularly Wade and Bosh -- would go a long way in helping the home team secure a victory against Miami.
Update: Sam Amick of USA Today reports that James strained his right groin last night against the Kings and isn't sure if he'll be in the lineup tonight against Portland.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter