The Miami Heat defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 108-107, at the Moda Center on Saturday night, dropping Portland's record to 24-6.
The laments poured forth after this one for a Blazers team that hasn't had much spilled milk to cry over or wounds to lick this season. A deep moonball three-pointer from Chris Bosh and a subsequent failed lob to LaMarcus Aldridge sealed the result, but the list of complaints was a long one, and most of the irritants predated the game's final second.
Coach Terry Stotts was "disappointed" that the Blazers played "loose" in the first half; Robin Lopez pointed to a series of "dumb" turnovers that broke up Portland's rhythm late in the game; Wesley Matthews said Portland conceded the win through multiple instances of miscommunication on defense; Damian Lillard perceived Portland making "a lot of mistakes" throughout that "came back to bite us" at the end; and Aldridge blamed himself for his defensive positioning on Bosh's three-pointer, while also regretting that he didn't use the backboard on his own potential game-winner at the buzzer.
These various, semi-emo self-critiques continued for more than 10 minutes total in what was the most deflated home locker room of the year, only abating when the subject changed to Monday's game against the Pelicans in New Orleans.
"We let one get away," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "Let's go in there and let's kill them."
A night of feather-pounding and beak-breaking had to sound good after a perplexing performance in which the Blazers weren't able to take advantage of LeBron James' first missed game of the season. The back-to-back MVP sat with a groin strain, after dropping to one knee in pain during a warm-up session, and Portland played with a temperament befitting a college student informed that his final exam had been postponed. Perimeter passes were nonchalant; the defensive effort never maxed out; the Blazers seemed caught off guard by the Heat's overall aggressiveness, even without James; and key mistakes littered the game's closing sequences.
"It's not even really about LeBron, we were in the game," Aldridge, who finished with 22 points (on 9-for-20 shooting), seven rebounds and four assists, told Blazersedge. "If we take care of business the last minute or minute and a half, that's our game. But we had some breakdowns in the last minute and they capitalized on them."
It was about James, though, because it's always about James with the Heat. The only question is a matter of degree and route: directly, indirectly, tangentially or circuitously.
Defending champions, by definition, win a lot of games, and they win them in lots of different ways. The Blazers weren't scared by the Heat, they weren't intimidated, and they certainly weren't dominated. But they also weren't nearly eager or bloodthirsty enough, and it showed on a highly-anticipated night that went down as a bust as soon as James' absence was announced shortly before tip-off. There are only a select few NBA players capable of making adults scream their name over and over from the 200 level -- convinced that their personal cheers are being heard by their idol -- and the unexpected non-appearance of one such player, the league's brightest star no less, managed to cast a shadow over the rest of a high-scoring, entertaining game that wasn't decided until the final buzzer.
Does Portland look quite as flat if James had suited up? Do they coast through the first half giving up 57 percent shooting? Do they commit 19 total turnovers, many of them unforced, if James, whose presence demands total focus, is present? Had they played this exact same game against a James-led Miami team, they surely would have lost. But would their approach and concentration have been different under such circumstances?
Wasn't Miami in a position to win this game because Portland let up? Didn't the two-time defending champions claim this win largely through the neglect displayed by their opponent?
"We handed them that game," Matthews, who finished with a team-high 23 points (on 9-for-14 shooting) and three rebounds, said. "They've still got players that can carry a team. We can't put too much emphasis on a star or marquee guy not playing. When a team is built the way they are, they just put another piece in. Granted, you can't replace LeBron, but they're still a tough team. ... It sucks that we controlled everything that happened. We can't blame nobody but ourselves."
By now, everyone knows how the Heat are built -- A "Big 3" of stars and a host of quality, budget role players -- and the other two prongs of the trident delivered in James' absence.
Dwyane Wade finished with 16 points (on 8-for-19 shooting) and seven assists, and he made up for a late foul that put Batum on the line for three free-throws by slamming home a key dunk that tied the game with 26 seconds remaining. Using a high screen from Ray Allen, Wade timed his drive perfectly to take advantage of Matthews' decision to stay tight on Allen, a three-point marksman, rather than switch. Batum was a split-second late getting through the traffic, giving Wade just enough daylight, and Portland's smaller closing lineup offered no backside help.
"I was thinking they were going to try to slip Ray to a flare screen, which I still think was ultimately going to happen," Matthews recalled. "[Wade] kind of used me as a double screen on Nic. Nic was still able to recover, but that should have been a switch and avoided."
On Miami's next possession, after another pair of Batum free throws, Wade again turned the corner at the top of the key, heading for the basket with less than six seconds remaining in the game. Biting on the move, perhaps because of the previous play's result, Aldridge elected to leave Bosh at the top of the key to help Batum defend against the drive. After sucking in both Blazers to the protected circle, Wade flipped a behind-the-back pass to a wide open Bosh, who had enough time to settle himself and launch the game-winning three from well behind the line. Both Lillard and Mo Williams raced out to contest the shot, but it was too late. The shot swished through with 0.5 seconds remaining.
"Time running down, you've got to do our coverages," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "Both guys went with Wade. It was a ball screen and both guys went with Wade, in the moment. We definitely have to be better going down the stretch. I could have been better, I could have broke it off and not chased him to the rim, but I did. Bosh made a really tough shot."
Aldridge's instinct -- in that moment -- was to protect the basket, much like it was against the Dallas Mavericks when Monta Ellis hit his game-winner earlier this month and just as it was for the Blazers against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, when they dodged a mid-range bullet from Chris Paul. Perhaps Williams could have rotated over more quickly -- a crosscourt pass to Norris Cole, his assignment, would have been exceedingly difficult to make and a preferable outcome to letting Bosh decide the game -- but Portland wasn't begrudging Bosh's shot in the slightest.
"Look, he was three or four feet behind the line, we had two guys running at him," Stotts said. "Wade throws it back to him, it was a great shot. ... He played a terrific game and they needed him to. They've got guys that have won championships together and Chris Bosh has been an All-Star, he carried a [Toronto Raptors] team to the playoffs by himself. He's certainly capable of doing that."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra credited Bosh with the play's design as well as his execution.
"My call at the end of the game was much more conservative," Spoelstra said, telling reporters that it was Bosh who asked for the ball and the chance to win the game with a three-point attempt. "He was feeling it, he wanted it. ... It was much better than what I had planned."
Bosh tallied a season-high 37 points (on 15-for-26 shooting) and 10 rebounds, and he presented match-up problems for Portland all night. His jumper was flowing early and he forced Lopez to step out to defend him, a mismatch in lateral quickness that ended predictably. Bosh also hit all three of his three-point attempts, and he seemed to relish his moment in the sun without James, who placed his coat jacket on Bosh's back like a cape during his post-game interview.
"In that situation, I wanted to go for the win," Bosh said of his three-pointer, before addressing his night as a whole. "I can have a bigger brush. [James] lays a bigger canvas out there, so it was a lot of space I was working with. I knew they were going to put [Lopez] on me and I just wanted to do my best to mix up taking it to the hole and shooting the jumper."
Portland's last gasp hope was a well-designed, well-executed play that was only missing the finish. With just a half-second to work with, Batum inbounded from the left sideline, finding a seam over the top of Bosh and underneath Miami's perimeter defenders to hit Aldridge with a lob near the right block. The toss was on target, the catch was clean, and two Miami defenders were at Aldridge's mercy.
"That was exactly what we wanted," Stotts said.
Knowing he didn't have time to land, Aldridge twisted slightly in mid-air and tossed up a two-handed touch shot that sailed over the rim, landing harmlessly on the left side of the court.
"It worked," Aldridge said of the play. "They were trying to front me on the block a little bit. He didn't fully front me, Nic threw it to a spot, I went and got it, I shot it. ... That was a good look. That was tough to judge how hard I should shoot it falling backwards. If I could go back in time, I might try to go glass. I was happy with the pass, just make it next time."
Had he made it, and he easily could have, the win would have been filed under "got away with one" rather than the "decisive victory" heading. There were too many negative indicators: seven fourth-quarter turnovers, a three-plus minute stretch early in the fourth with no points, 60 Heat points in the paint, 51.7 percent shooting by the Heat on the night.
"They turn people over," Matthews told Blazersedge. "They play a high-energy defense. They trap. They get after the ball and we knew that. We were moving the ball a lot in the first half, it almost came easy. They took advantage of it, they turned up their defense and we were still kind of playing casual offensively."
Casual generally isn't good enough to beat a championship-caliber team, and the Blazers learned Saturday that it was insufficient against a championship-caliber team that was playing without its motor and face. Last-second losses are always heart-breaking, but last-second losses that feel self-inflicted are doubly so, and last-second, self-inflicted losses that also squander favorable circumstances are triply so.
"It was disappointing that we put ourselves in that position at the end of the game where it had to come down to a couple plays at the end," Stotts said. "Whether that possession [ends with an Aldridge game-winner], or their two scores at the end, as a coach I'm looking at the totality of it."
And Aldridge is looking to erase the memories -- all of them -- with a little vengeful bird hunting.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout (20,071). The in-arena buzz was not as great as I expected but that was unavoidable with the late James scratch.
- Here are video highlights via YouTube user NBA.
- After the Heat's Media Relations staff member came into the Media Room to announce that James was inactive, one out-of-town media member exclaimed, as if surprised and breaking major news, "Greg Oden is out too!?!" This was met by a hearty round of knowing laughs from Portland media folks.
- More than three months after posting a "help wanted" ad online for a Blazers beat reporter, The Oregonian informed multiple job applicants this week that the newspaper had "reached a decision" about the position. That "decision" does not include a new hire, even though at least two well-known online writers went through the interview process. Meanwhile, the University of Oregon football team's season ends with Monday's Alamo Bowl. Two plus two equals...
- Quick, click this GIF of Meyers Leonard shooting a one-legged, fall-away three-pointer and try not to groan. I am in agreement with the angry mob on Twitter that believed Terry Stotts stuck with Leonard for too long in the second half, but I thought Leonard did more good than harm overall, tallying six points and five rebounds.
- Joel Freeland's 12 rebounds (in just 15 minutes) blew away his previous career-high of eight.
- The Blazers' game operations took an antagonistic approach to the large swathes of Heat fans in attendance. Prior to the game, Heat fans were shown on the jumbotron alongside a graphic that read "Not from Miami." Then, during the game, the PA system played Will Smith's "Miami" as the jumbotron put a "Bandwagon fans" label next to Heat fans on the screen. That last bit was met by two gentlemen flipping the bird to the entire arena, and the camera took much longer than usual to cut away. Oops.
- There were a bunch of black and red "Beat the Heat" t-shirts in circulation in the arena and, as you would expect, plenty of anti-Heat or Heat-related signs. A sample: "Save energy, turn off Heat," "Tired of him" with an arrow to a LeBron James jersey, "There's no Heat in Portland, we're raining 3s," "2014 Finals Preview," etc.
- Maybe the best sign on the night: "Are we real now?" Another good one: "Lillard must be Mother Nature's son because he makes it rain."
- Former Seinfeld actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in attendance, and everyone lost his/her collective mind that a real celebrity would actually be in Portland. LeBron James posted a photo with her after the game (of course).
- The game ops crew did a nice job of showing a graphic with Louis-Dreyfus's face and Elaine Benes' signature "Get out!" line in response to a questionable call by the officials.
- The Blazers had not one, but two spectacular blocks: Batum tossed a Wade lay-up attempt after a slithering drive and Aldridge came from the weakside to send back a Bosh shot with force.
- One of Mo Williams' two fourth-quarter turnovers sent him spilling to the court. Vine via K L Chouinard.
- Brandon Richard of SoleCollector.com notes that Damian Lillard is getting a special Blazers colorway of Adidas's "Crazy 8" sneakers.
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian with the money photo of Wade's behind-the-back pass unfolding. Also, a nice shot of the Big 3's typically over-the-top post-game celebration.
- Lopez, who stressed that the game was about more than just the final possession, disputed the notion that Bosh was a tough cover: "I don't think he was too -- honestly he wasn't difficult to defend. That's something -- he hit a lot of jumpers, a few of those. One contested but a lot of them we got our hands up."
- Pressed twice on Bosh's play, Lopez, who had 17 points (on 7-for-10 shooting) and five rebounds of his own, wasn't eager to offer substantive praise: "He made a tough shot. ... I guess that's a good night."
- Lopez specifically called Portland's turnovers "dumb" and Damian Lillard agreed. Here's Lillard to Blazersedge: "Yeah, they were. We talked about how they shoot passing lanes, and really attack the ball and try to steal the ball and we basically let them do that."
- Lillard, who tallied 16 points (on 5-for-9 shooting), seven assists and four turnovers, on Miami's defense: "They deny passes, they shot passing lanes, we knew that that was they did coming into the game. Just because of how successful we were in the first half offensively, we thought the same things were going to be there. They did a good job of taking it away."
- It was good to see Portland native and former Rip City Project writer Couper Moorhead, who has been with Heat.com since 2010, back in town for a rare visit. He has been a very gracious and knowledgeable host in Miami during the Finals over the last few years. Former Willamette Week writer Casey Jarman was also back in the building.
- Matthews' reaction when informed that Stotts was disappointed with the team's overall performance: "We're not [happy] either. We demand the most out of ourselves, the best out of ourselves, especially in situations like that and we've done that. We've risen to the occasion every time in that kind of situation. We didn't tonight. Coach doesn't have to be mad, we're upset at ourselves."
- Matthews on moving forward: "Take it out on New Orleans. Our biggest thing is we can't lose two in a row. That's what we hang our hats on. It's going to be tough to sleep tonight. New Orleans gave us a tough game and we've got OKC around the corner."
- That was some big-time free-throw shooting from Nicolas Batum: 5-for-5 in the game's final 32 seconds. He finished with 11 points (on 2-for-6 shooting), nine assists and six rebounds.
- The 100-point mark was another non-event. They flashed "Mick-ee-dees" right below the jumbotron on a smaller screen but no one cheered or chanted.
- I was very impressed by Miami's play considering the individual game circumstances but also in general. None of their games between now and March really matter considering the pathetic Eastern Conference, and they had every reason to throw in the towel in this game: a back-to-back, overtime Friday night, no James, lots of weird positional match-ups between the two teams, hot Portland shooting, a fourth-quarter deficit, etc. They stuck it out all the way to the finish.
- Happy New Year from me to you.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well it was obviously a disappointing loss. It was disappointing that we put ourselves in that position at the end of the game where it had to come down to a couple plays at the end. Give Miami credit -- we knew they had a lot of good players, with James out, they had a lot of good players that can make plays and they did. We didn't defend as well as we needed to throughout the game. We did in parts but not as often as we needed to.
I was disappointed that we were in that position to begin with. I thought it was a loose game in the first half. I didn't think we communicated well defensively. We just let it be a loose game in the first half. I thought that kind of set the tone. We've been in a lot of close games, we've won a lot of close games, we had an opportunity and we didn't take advantage of it.
Our turnovers -- we were in a position [to win] and we had a bad stretch of offense. I just thought we had a lot of opportunities before it came down to the last 30 seconds.
Last inbounds play to Aldridge
That was exactly what we wanted.
Can't get a better look
No. But again, whether that possession or their two scores at the end, as a coach I'm looking at the totality of it.
Defense on Bosh three-pointer
Look he was three or four feet behind the line, we had two guys running at him. Wade throws it back to him, it was a great shot.
Defense on Chris Bosh
He made his jump shots early. His threes, I didn't count on him going three for three on threes. He made his jumpshots. He played a terrific game and they needed him to. They've got guys that have won championships together and Chris Bosh has been an All-Star, he carried a team to the playoffs by himself. He's certainly capable of doing that.
Turnovers -- your fault or their defense?
I'd have to look at the video but it's probably a little bit of both.
This loss is a teachable moment?
Every game is a teachable moment. You need to take things away from every game you play. But we'll learn something from it.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter