As always, the matchup on paper between the Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat (4:30 p.m. Pacific on CSNNW and NBATV) looks like a squash for Miami. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. The Heat have won 5 straight, 10 of their last 12. The Blazers couldn't even manage a win against Orlando on Sunday. Miami's at home (22-3 record) while Portland's on the road (8-18). Yet the Blazers somehow manage to give the Heat a decent game. Last year's lockout season gave the teams only one opportunity to meet, a contest which Miami won in Portland. But the Blazers won the first game between the two this season, split the series in 2010-11 (winning in Miami), split again in 2009-10 (winning in Miami), etc.
The Heat had Portland on the ropes a month ago. They rebounded hard, used their glass dominance to key the break, and smothered J.J. Hickson every time he touched the ball inside, turning Portland into a perimeter-exclusive team. Miami may not be the greatest perimeter defensive team in the league but they've got enough length and experience to bother jump shooters when they want to. As soon as Portland's offense turned one-dimensional the Heat had them.
Then, like angels from the wings, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews flew in on defense to disrupt the Miami flow. Each hit a huge three-pointer late. When you looked up at the scoreboard the Blazers had completed yet another fourth-quarter rally and a 92-90 victory over a Miami team that couldn't quite figure out what just happened.
It's a fairly safe bet the Heat remember that game. It's also a safe bet that they've figured out what did happen...how they let three quarters of strong rebounding, paint scoring, and interior defense collapse, leaving themselves vulnerable to those miracle threes. But one can always hope...
LeBron is having his usual brilliant year, averaging 27 points on 56% shooting, 42% from the arc, drawing 7 foul shots per game, and throwing in 8 rebounds and 7 assists. But LeBron James and Nicolas Batum are the only small forwards in the NBA who have 6 or 7 letters in their first name, 5 letters in their last name, share an "o" and "n" in common in their given names, and average at least 15.8 points and 6 rebounds per game. So ignore the PER gap of 31 to 17. Portland's small forward isn't actually that far behind the league's glowing superstar.
Mr. Wade, meanwhile, is shooting 51% for 21 points per game. Chris Bosh is at 54% for 17 points. Combined the Big 3 take almost 60% of Miami's shots and shoot 54% while doing so. The rest of the team ain't shabby either, as Miami owns a league-best 49% field goal percentage. They're also 3rd in three-point percentage, 2nd in offensive efficiency, and 5th in total points per game. It's a matchup headache no matter where you turn and the supporting cast is good enough to stab you in the back while you're busy paying attention to the hammer-blows of the main players.
The Heat aren't too shabby defensively either. They're top-third in the league everywhere except defending the three-point arc and allowing free throws. They're slightly sub-par in those categories.
If the Heat have a weakness it's rebounding. They don't care much about offensive rebounds (relatively few of them coming available) and they're not that tight on the defensive glass either. This was part of the story of the first Portland-Miami game. If you're going to give them the glass too you're just done. But as soon as the Blazers knuckled down on the boards a small crack opened through which they were able to wriggle.
Most of Miami's 14 losses have come to two types of teams: high-octane, multi-pronged offensive rosters who spill around their defense and incredibly solid defensive juggernauts who find a way to contain one or more of their big scorers. The Blazers are one of the few teams who have beaten Miami in the middle ground. As such it's hard to find a clear path forward to a victory tonight. Board work is critical, as we said. Defensive rotations have to be snappy, as you'll not be able to handle both James and Wade 1-on-1 all night. Then you have to hope the supporting cast misses their jumpers while you make yours.
That's a tall order, but stranger things have happened. Odds are the game will play out just like the book says, with Miami cruising to an easy win. If the Blazers don't bring more energy than we've seen in the last couple of games that's already a fait accompli. But this year's Blazers have tended to step up their games for big-name teams. If it becomes a dogfight and the Blazers can keep it close up until the last minutes, anything can happen...as Portland fans well know.
We'll see what the evening brings.
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