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Nicolas Batum and Portland Trail Blazers Defeat The Heat With Strong Fourth Quarter

Nicolas Batum keeps the Trail Blazers afloat through three shaky quarters and then sets up the decisive run in the fourth as the Blazers beat the Heat, 92-90.

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For the first three quarters of this game you'd have sworn the Miami Heat were going to walk away with it. They put on a clinic that well could have been titled, "How to Cripple the Blazers and Win Games". Elements of their success included:

  • Dominating the boards, allowing the Blazers few offensive rebounds and swarming anybody who did catch off the offensive glass.
  • Using that rebounding dominance to leak out for easy buckets against single, overmatched defenders on Portland's end.
  • Getting hands in the faces of shooters, forcing the Blazers to miss almost all their outside shots.
  • Bullying J.J. Hickson every time he tried to score inside.
  • Forcing turnovers, taking away critical Portland possessions and generating even more easy shots.
  • Scoring in the paint repeatedly in the halfcourt, particularly with their Big Three.

Adding to the misery, the Blazers were abetting the Heat in their quest for victory. In a big game, the Blazers' offense came up pretty small. They looked nervous in scenarios where they usually prosper. Even when their threes were wide open they missed them. When LaMarcus Aldridge got attempts in the paint he shuffled, twisted weirdly, and rushed the release. Almost every pass that had any chance to lead to an open scoring opportunity arrived too high, too low, left or right, allowing Miami to catch up to the ball and scuttling otherwise good looks. Almost everyone looked hesitant to shoot.

The Blazers actually had a decent offensive plan in the first quarter, trying to use Hickson inside as a mismatch. His looks were all covered well and he missed every one of them. Plus having him be the primary scorer kept him away from the offensive glass, so those misses were one-and-done. On the other end Chris Bosh was making like Superman, using the attention paid to Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as a license to score free and easy. The Blazers alternated between 0 and 1 defender on him, depending on the situation. He scored either way.

Only a few Portland bright spots interrupted Miami's control of this game. Damian Lillard hit a couple threes early on...the only Blazer to connect from outside. Nicolas Batum turned in an efficient and productive first half on the offensive end while handling Wade or LeBron every trip down the court defensively. But those weren't near enough as Miami led 52-39 at the break.

The third period was more of the same, especially in the rebounding and passing departments. The Blazers were just off their game. They did stage a mini-comeback behind forced turnovers, credited mostly to the defense of Batum. Those turnovers, the layups they generated, a couple nice drives by Ronnie Price, and the inability of Miami's bench players to score late in the period brought the Blazers back to within 5 as the fourth quarter commenced.

Bosh, Ray Allen, and Mike Miller poured in 9 points in the first 2:30 of the fourth, leaving the Heat up 11 again and it looked like that was going to be it for the Blazers. But a funny thing happened on the way to Miami's win. All of a sudden the Blazers started rebounding like normal...meaning cleaning up the defensive class impeccably and generating enough offensive rebounds to keep the Heat near the ball and not streaking away. Then the Blazers started getting the ball inside and getting fouled instead of bricking outside shots off the dribble. Then Batum hit a three, Batum and Matthews started making life hell for the Heat with their defense, the Blazers started passing effectively, Matthews hit a jumper in the key, Batum hit a brilliant and-one layup...lo and behold, the ballgame was tied and it was a dogfight.

Despite some potentially costly errors--missed opportunities close to the rim and missed free throws--which kept the Blazers from zooming ahead, their defense and rebounding stayed solid enough to keep the game close. Ray Allen returned the "costly mistake" favor with 1:05 remaining, hitting only 1 of 2 free throw attempts and leaving the Blazers down by 3. After the ensuing timeout Batum got in the lane, drew the weak-side defense, and floated a silky pass to Matthews in the corner for a three that anybody who has watched the Blazers this year KNEW was going. Tie ballgame. When Matthews hit a step-back three on Allen on the next possession to counter a Bosh dunk, the Blazers led and momentum was on their side. Portland's defense was good enough to hold the Heat to consecutive three-point attempts in their final two possessions. Both were open, both missed. The Blazer walked away with a 92-90 win and the biggest confidence boost they've had this season.

Impressive stats of the night:

  • LeBron James held to 15 points on 6-16 shooting. He looked like a deity when his shot went in. He also had 10 rebounds and 9 assists, so it wasn't a bad game for him. But the Blazers made him work.
  • Ditto for Dwyane Wade at 6-18 for 18 points. Add these two bullet points into the column of "Batum and Matthews are pretty good defenders".
  • Though Bosh shot 13-18 and scored 29 he had but 4 rebounds. Aldridge had 15 and Hickson 10. Recovering in this department set the stage for the Portland comeback. After getting bullied early the Blazers ended up tying the Heat in total rebounds, 45-45.
  • The Blazers won on a night when they shot only 9-27 (33%) from the arc. They held the Heat to 6-19 shooting from distance (32%). Miami is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. (Confidentially I'm not sure how much the Blazers had to do with some of those misses. Miami blew some pretty open threes tonight.)
  • The Blazers also held the high-percentage Heat offense to 45.5% shooting from the field, more than 3 percentage points under their normal average. THAT was a defensive accomplishment.
  • The Heat had 38 points in the paint at the half (30 of those scored by the Big 3). Miami finished with only 44 total points in the paint. After getting obliterated in the early quarters the Blazers closed the gap to finish only -6 in this department.
  • Portland forced 17 turnovers and scored 15 fast break points, beating the Heat in both departments.
Individual Notes

No matter what else happened in this game, one player was going to get credit for playing like a big-game pro throughout. That would be Nicolas Batum. Not only did he play a complete game tonight, excelling on both ends, he was the only player on the floor for three quarters who looked like he belonged on the stage with the World Champs. He wasn't shaky. He didn't look intimidated. He took it to everyone he guarded. He stayed within himself on offense, hit his shots, made on-target and appropriate passes. And guess what? Wherever you looked in the second half comeback, there he was. His fingerprints were all over Portland's success. Big steal? It was Batum. Huge layup conversion? It was Batum. Major three? Batum did it first. Clutch free throws? Batum. Big stop? Batum. Critical set-up assist? Batum. Brokered Middle East peace, turned "Battleship" into a blockbuster worth seeing, resurrected the Twinkie and made it even more delicious? Batum, Batum, Batum. This was Nic Batum's game. This was also Nic Batum's coming-out party to the more casual portion of the league. He was not just a star tonight. He was a star and a team leader on both ends, directing traffic and then executing himself. This was not Nicolas Batum's best statistical game on record, but this may well be the best combination of big stage, effective play, team leadership, victory-securing play he's ever produced. 28 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 1 serious face-off with World Champs after which he walked out with the victory.

Wesley Matthews' contributions came chiefly at the defensive end for most of three quarters. His accomplishments there shouldn't be minimized. Both LeBron and Wade felt his presence. He also gave the Blazers another round of amazing final-two-possessions defense. But Matthews will chiefly be remembered for hitting those back-to-back threes with less than a minute to go in the fourth. The first one was assisted by Batum but Wes still had to drain the shot. The second was all Matthews, naked to the world and drilling one cold-blooded triple over Ray Allen. 18 points on 7-18 shooting, the 6 quick ones in the fourth mattering most.

LaMarcus Aldridge tried to be the rock in this game early on, succeeding modestly. He made some nice moves in the post and hit a couple of face-up jumpers but he looked shaky and/or bothered. As the Blazers got rolling, so did he, particularly with those critical rebounds. As mentioned, he notched 15 of those. He also went 8-10 from the foul line, eclipsed only by Batum's 9-11 rate. However--and we need to talk about this even in the midst of a season-defining win--Aldridge once again had critical free throws at the end of the fourth. Check that...Aldridge TWICE again had critical free throws at the end of the fourth and both times he hit only 1 of 2, leaving his team vulnerable. This guy is not Dwight Howard. He shoots 81% from the line overall. But these late-game foul shot situations are way in his head now and this is not going away. Right now the Blazers do not want Aldridge to get fouled with the game on the line. That's a problem when the guy is your #1 option. 20 points, 15 rebounds, 6-19 shooting.

Damian Lillard gave the Blazers an offensive boost in the early going when nobody else was. He took only 11 shots on the night, hitting 4 for 10 total points. Instead of forcing the issue he fed teammates for 8 assists. This was the right call...especially since it let the focus stay on Batum. However the two biggest breakdowns in late-fourth-quarter defense both involved Lillard. In the first he miscommunicated with Batum and left Allen open for a three, which Ray canned. Then he blew coverage all on his own, leading to an easy Bosh score. Lillard gets more leeway because he is a rookie but it's worth noting that this will eventually become as big of an issue as Aldridge's free throw follies if it doesn't stop. These mistakes weren't due to his individual defensive prowess or lack thereof. This was blowing the read and blowing the scheme. Neither his athleticism nor his teammates' could prevent a bucket once that happened.

J.J. Hickson recovered from a rough first half by rebounding his way to double digits with 10. He ended up 3-11 from the field for 8 points. This was not a night where J.J. led the team to glory but he certainly kept up with them during the comeback and did his part.

Ronnie Price was just about the only significant bench player tonight, as Coach Stotts split 40 minutes between 5 different reserves. Price's aggressive drives and 2 steals help feed the early stages of Portland's comeback. 5 points, 2 steals in 11 minutes.

The Blazers have had so many turn-arounds from first half to second this season--plus executed so well in close, late-game situations against all manner of opponents--that we really should credit the work Terry Stotts and his coaching staff are doing in the halftime locker room and on the bench. This team plays poorly sometimes. This team has even given up a time or two. But this team doesn't lose its poise and seems to feel that it can win in almost any situation against almost anyone. And by gum...they often do. Hats off to the adjustments that turned a sure defeat into a narrow, but significant, victory.

Your Boxscore. Highlight the lines of James and Wade. This was the first time LeBron hasn't scored 20 this season.

The folks at Hot Hot Hoops will need a stiff stiff drink after this one.

Portland Trail Blazers tickets

--Dave (