It's too bad the final score of this game couldn't be closer. A 117-104 Miami victory doesn't describe the flavor of the evening. This game was like a battle between two heavyweight boxers, each taking turns throwing haymakers for 13 rounds before the Heat finally delivered the knockout punch in the 14th, keeping the match from a truly thrilling conclusion.
The game started with Miami creating turnovers, scoring on the run, using penetration and passing to set up open jumpers. The Heat made their first 7 shots. Then Damian Lillard hit a couple threes and LaMarcus Aldridge came on late to show why he's an All-Star player. This was classic 2012-13 Trail Blazers. The superior opponent shot 70%+ in the period, looked to be doing what they wanted on offense, and yet when they looked up on the scoreboard at the end of the first it read 33-29 Portland. Wha???? How the heck did that happen??? The Blazers picket at the Heat through most of the quarter but generated a couple brief, prolific runs to end up ahead. It's like poker...it's not how many hands you win but the value of those hands. Miami raked in pot after pot but the Blazers won the big ones.
Also contributing to Portland's first-half success: Miami's evident failure to read any kind of scouting report on the Blazers. The Heat made the curious choice to go small in the late first and early second quarters. This is par for the course for them but it was a mistake in this instance. To what are the Blazers vulnerable? Any kind of big. When do the Blazers prosper? When they can control the boards and drive the lane without worrying about anybody taking up space. That's just what Portland did as the first quarter closed and the second commenced. LaMarcus Aldridge made hay early, Damian Lillard added in a couple drives, and Portland rebounded their way to control of the ball and the game. When a Luke Babbitt three fell against a collapsing and bewildered Miami defense with 4:48 remaining in the second Portland led by 14, 57-43.
Sadly this lead only served to wake the sleeping tiger. The Heat huddled up and realized they still had the best player in the universe on their side...a guy who hadn't been getting many scoring opportunities to that point. LeBron James took over in the latter half of the second period, getting inside again and again against helpless Portland defenders. The Blazers lost the rebounding advantage and ceased driving against Miami's renewed defense. Portland's outside jumpers started clanking as confidence leaked over to the Heat. In a little over four minutes Miami closed the lead to 1 and the Blazers exited the half up 59-58. It was a moral victory in the big picture but a morale-drainer considering the earlier gap.
The Heat kept up the pressure at the beginning of the third and the Blazers obliged by continuing to fire away from outside. Without paint points, foul shots, or close rebounds the Blazers sank like a rock. The Heat employed an effective inside-out game to score 23 points in a little over 6 minutes. Now Portland was down 14 and a blowout became a serious consideration.
You say potato, I say potahto. You say "Impending Blowout", I say "Lillard Time!" Portland's rookie point guard continued his excellent outing by destroying the Heat off the drive and with the jumper, scoring 9 in the final 4:30 of the third. The shots he made were barely human. Heads shook in the stands as involuntary gasps and groans filled the stadium. When the smoke cleared Miami led only 86-82.
The fourth period began with the Heat again going away from LeBron, though to be fair Sasha Pavlovic also gave the Blazers a few minutes of nice defense against his former teammate. Lillard continued his insane assault on the rim and credibility while Aldridge and Wesley Matthews bolstered him by attacking the rim as well. With 6:15 remaining the score was knotted at 97 and Blazer fans started to hope this would go down to the wire.
It's impossible to describe the emotional back-and-forth that had transpired up to this point. All you can say is that Miami and Portland fans both were treated to a great game and that if you didn't enjoy it, you probably shouldn't be watching NBA basketball. It was that classic...great players leaving your jaws on the floor and your heart in your throat.
The ending of this game, though, would belong to the Heat. The chink in the armor for Portland's defense tonight was the outside shot. In order to cover the lane and grab boards the Blazers sacrificed open looks outside. Early on Miami wasn't hitting enough of them to matter. But the fourth-quarter devastation started early with Ray Allen juking his man and driving free for a layup from the left coffin corner. That innocuous-seeming play signaled to the Heat that they needed to attack inside. Multiple successes forced the Blazers to pack their defense deep. As a result Miami found Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, and Allen wide open as the period ticked to a close. Those shots fell...and fell...and fell. Portland's did not. Then the Heat resumed the inside attack, again finding success. But every time the Blazers tried to return the favor by driving something bad happened. The refs missed a goal-tending call on a Matthews drive and then ignored a face-foul on a second. James legit swatted a Lillard layup all to heck and that was the signal that the paint was closed for business. Left to the outside shot, Portland couldn't match the Heat.
The last 6 minutes of this contest brought the long-awaited blowout. The Blazers never got in their final punch and had no chance to win again with a late miracle. Portland did what they could. Miami did what they had to. Both teams did well but Miami was better.
Portland shot 53% in this game but Miami shot 58%. Points in the paint went to Miami 46-38 but Blazers fans have seen worse. The numbers that stand out for Portland are 4 offensive rebounds on the night and only 9 turnovers forced. Those are key sources of easy points for the Blazers and Miami played maturely enough to avoid giving them up unnecessarily. That's not a problem with Portland as much as a sign that Miami is just that good. It is a signal that the Blazers need better sources of those easy looks but that's a season-long problem and won't be fixed this side of June.
You cannot even describe the offensive games that LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard had tonight. Aldridge's line was 13-20, 29 points. The critique of his game shows in his 5 rebounds. It's a familiar issue, but it's particularly curious tonight. He neither got in the paint to rebound nor out to cover shooters. His dominant offensive performance more than made up for it, though. The Heat couldn't stop him anywhere. Even less could they stop Lillard with anything short of a full-court, two-man press. Damian went 10-18 from the floor and an impressive 10-11 from the line. He had his way with them, using early jumpers to set up mid-game drives which freed up jumpers later. His 33 points were a tour de force and neither the Heat nor their fans are going to forget him any time soon. Between them Aldridge and Lillard broke Miami's defense, opening up opportunities for everybody else just as much as the amazing LeBron James did for his teammates.
Wesley Matthews was Portland's third-leading scorer, shooting 8-13, 3-6 from distance for 20 points. Unlike his higher-scoring compatriots he also filled up his end of the boxscore, grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing 3 assists (more rebounds than Aldridge and just as many assists as Lillard). I'm not sure anybody's defense looked great tonight and Matthews was more than overmatched when he got stuck against James, but Matthews didn't look too bad on that end.
Nicolas Batum played about equal to Matthews on defense...a few nice moments, generally fairly active, but helpless to stop Miami's onslaught. He only took 5 attempts tonight but really he didn't touch the ball that much and in this game that was fine. He neither forced things nor ran away from them. The problematic part of his game came courtesy of 5 turnovers. His passing was not crisp tonight and he only got 4 assists. But he didn't hurt the Blazers by passing up open shots and on a night when assists were as rare as hen's teeth him taking more shots would have taken them from somebody else. Everybody else was firing well enough that the Blazers didn't need Nic. 5 points, 2 blocks, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 5 turnovers.
J.J. Hickson collected 3 fouls and not much else in 13 minutes. The matchups weren't right for him. He couldn't help enough defensively to stay in the game against the big or small versions of Miami's offense.
Several members of Portland's bench distinguished themselves tonight, albeit in subtle ways. Jared Jeffries gave the Blazers 20 really good minutes off the bench, smelling what Miami was cooking and getting to the right spot defensively. He provided 7 unexpected points and 3 rebounds in 20 minutes. Sasha Pavlovic also had a couple nice defensive stands in 22 minutes although he committed 5 personal fouls in order to get to that point. Luke Babbitt hit a nice three and Ronnie Price got a couple of assists, rebounds, and a steal in 10 minutes. Most impressively of all, the lead didn't fade, but grew, when Portland's bench players came in. It's not like they played great but the Blazers didn't suffer during their minutes. That's plenty good enough for now.
New Orleans tomorrow. Let's hope the Blazers get in too late to participate in Mardi Gras because they'll need their rest. As we'll talk about in the preview later on, the biggest enemy in this game could be a combination of letdown from the big Miami contest and the tendency to anticipate the end of the road trip and the beginning of the All-Star break. We'll see if the Blazers can overcome.
Hot Hot Hoops will take this win in stride but maybe they'll have some nice things to say about Damian Lillard too.
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