Hearing that LeBron James will not play for the Miami Heat in tonight's game is like buying a ticket to see Katy Perry in concert and then finding out that Katy Perry will not actually be performing at said show. Her backup band may be fantastic, but come on. We want to hear somebody roar.
When James was scratched from tonight's contest versus the Portland Trail Blazers due to a groin injury, you can forgive Blazer fans for an initial reaction of, "Awww...now the game will be boring," followed quickly by, "Oh well, at least this means another win!"
Miami had other ideas on both counts.
The Heat announced their intentions from the opening tip, playing the passing lane and forcing 4 Portland turnovers in the first 6 minutes of play. They turned their swipes into instant offense, their goal for the early part of the game. As long as Miami got down the floor before the Blazers could set up they couldn't miss. They jetted out to a 13-6 lead behind half a dozen consecutive makes sandwiched around a couple of Portland threes.
But that was only the first run in a game that would see more of them than a Taco Bell restroom. As soon as the Heat started congratulating themselves LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez started carving them up inside, using the three-point distraction to full effect against single (Aldridge) or non-existent (Lopez) coverage. Wesley Matthews canned a couple threes to get the Blazers rolling hard and Damian Lillard finished the quarter strong, leaving Portland up 34-30 in a frenetic first quarter.
Even this early, several trends developed. When the Blazers took care of the ball and grabbed a purchase on the boards they did fine. Lack of either discipline led to Heat prosperity. When the Heat went inside, moving the ball a little instead of standing still, Portland had no answer. The paint was open to them. Chris Bosh was obliterating Lopez inside and out, particularly out. That was a good look for Miami. But Dwyane Wade, usually a ninja, was pure turtle tonight. He was getting his shot snuffed, having trouble getting separation he would not be reliable tonight. That slowness also hurt the Heat on defense. Every open Portland triple was going to fall and they were getting plenty enough. Add all of those up and you get...a toss up. To be continued.
The end of the first period and the start of the second revealed another night-long trend. Though Portland's starters were up and down with the Heat, the second unit shone against their Miami counterparts. Mo Williams didn't shoot well tonight but he dribbled the Heat in dizzy circles and dished out assists amid the confusion. Dorell Wright didn't hit shots either but he seemed to take every possession against Miami personally. Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard made sure the Blazers kept rebounding, ceding nothing to the Heat. Leonard also hit a couple jumpers to keep them honest. Portland's bench players took care of the ball and didn't let Miami run for easy buckets. Nor could the Heat reserves punish the Blazers inside. They lacked the firepower and the more mobile bigs usually got to the spot before the shot went up. Portland's 4-point lead after one became 9 with 5:30 left in the second.
That's when Miami went on another tear behind Bosh and their guards, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. It's like they read the "Versus the Blazers" manual on the bench and remembered that Portland is vulnerable to scoring bigs and backcourt players. That trio scored 16 of the 20 Miami pasted on Portland in the final 5:30 of the half. But the Blazers were saved by yet another trend: Wesley Matthews yelling, "Chicken, Fight Like a Robot!" and then opening up a fusillade from long range. Wes scored a dozen straight as the period wound down, most from 20 feet and beyond. This countered the Miami paint-a-thon and preserved Portland a 4-point lead going into intermission.
Season-long observers know that the third period is Portland time. It's far and away their best quarter of the night, the time when they turn halftime adjustments and steely-eyed resolve into victories. And they made a go of it in the third tonight, trying to turn a first-half disadvantage into an edge by hitting Lopez down low. If he couldn't chase Bosh, it stands to reason that Bosh couldn't stop him in the paint. That's how it worked out too. Lopez scored 8 of Portland's first 11 points in the period. But the suddenly-solid interior scoring didn't happen fast enough. Miami was more than content to have Portland play more deliberately and stay away from the arc. In fact the Heat made sure they'd cover any shooters even if it meant Lopez ran free. It took the Blazers over 7 minutes to generate those 11 points, a far cry from their first-half production. Meanwhile the Heat kept running around Portland's defense. They held the lead again, 75-73 when Matthews tripled once more and all heck broke loose. The Blazers found a burst of energy, dunked on a couple possessions, then splashed jumpers when the Heat were back on their heels. All Miami's work went for nought as Portland surged back to an 88-83 lead to close the third.
After a rocky start for both sides the fourth period looked like a greatest hits parade of everything that had gone before. Portland's bench played well. Miami's starters countered. The Blazers held firm until they started turning over the ball and found rebounds falling to Miami. Dwyane Wade looked like Russell Westbrook on a really bad day, apparently losing his mind and the game simultaneously. But Chris Bosh went nuclear, scoring 11 in the period. The Blazers countered with Aldridge, aided by Matthews. And nothing got solved. The Blazers trailed 103-102 with 32 seconds remaining.
Normally critical possessions end with Lillard or Aldridge working miracles for the Blazers, but the end of this game belonged to Nicolas Batum. And rightfully so. He was open and he's also hit huge shots to buoy his team late. His first opportunity came with 32 seconds remaining when Captain Slowfoot (a.k.a. Wade) bumped into him while shooting a three. Batum said, "Merci" and sank trois des free throws. The Blazers led by 2 again, 105-103.
The Blazers went more mobile on defense, subbing in Williams for Lopez in an effort to stop the open jumpers Bosh and company had been feasting on. Ironically it didn't matter as Matthews and Batum got hung together on a simple screen, freeing Wade for a free trip down the lane and a dunk. Game tied at 105 with 26 seconds left.
Once again it was Lillard time and once again Batum ended up with the ball, this time after a scrum under the bucket. He got fouled on a short sideline jump shot attempt, sinking 2 more free throws. Portland led 107-105 with 7 seconds left. Could the defense hold?
It did...kind of.
Wade got the ball again and drove the lane, this time against Batum with Aldridge trailing. He had a roughly -84% chance of getting a shot up against that duo. But he flicked some kind of backwards elbow pass back to the guy Aldridge had just left to help: Bosh. The pass was pretty bad, taking Bosh 3 feet backwards just to recover it, and he had started at the three-point arc to begin with. But this forced retreat also put him out of the range of Lillard and Williams as they closed in desperation. He arced the 25-footer and...boom. 108-107 Heat with 0.5 seconds remaining.
The Blazers actually got a decent look on the ensuing inbound lob as Bosh stumbled slightly while Aldridge elevated 4 feet from the hoop, but Aldridge's one-handed push shot was too strong and went well over the rim. And that was the ballgame. Miami becomes the first Eastern Conference team to defeat the Blazers this season and only the 6th team to do so overall. LeBron James threatens to re-injure his groin while body-bumping teammates and 108-107 is your final score.
The Blazers did a great job on offense tonight, shooting 51% from the field and 42% from the arc on 11-26 attempts. They also drew 21 foul shots to only 11 for Miami, another sign of victory. But the cracks also showed through. The Blazers allowed Miami only 6 offensive rebounds but grabbed only 7 themselves. That hurt Portland more than the Heat. The Blazers also allowed Miami a 52% rate from the field and a 57% success rate from distance, 8-14 shots. The Blazers won the three-point battle but only by 3 shots. They took 12 more threes to get those 3 extra makes. A 60-32 deficit in the paint is de rigueur by now but 17 turnovers and an 18-7 hole in points after turnovers is a thorn in the side. Most of all, it hurts to lose on a night that James was in a fashionable suit, Wade played like his sneakers were made of molasses, and Ray Allen went 1-6 from distance. You wouldn't think that Chris Bosh having a superstar night and Miami's roadies shooting 50% would be enough to topple the Blazers, but at the hands of an experienced team it turned out to be enough.
Everybody who played tonight had several good points and a fairly significant "but" to their credit.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 22 on 9-20 shooting and had a couple near-unstoppable streaks. His 7 rebounds aren't a detriment on a night when the opponent didn't miss many shots. But you get the feeling that the Blazers should have gone to Aldridge sooner, that there wasn't the same urgency to establish the #1 option like we saw earlier in the year whenever another team threatened. The Blazers kind of monkeyed around until really late in the game before going back to LMA.
Damian Lillard scored only 16, though he did hit 4-7 from beyond the arc and dish 7 assists. But Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole had great nights, feasting on Lillard and Williams both. Also Damian's point guard tendencies were suspect, leading to 4 turnovers.
Wesley Matthews scored 23, hitting 5-8 from range and 9-14 overall in a tour de force that would have humbled most opponents. He was the lifeline when things got rough. But his defense was suspect, particularly in the critical late moments of this game.
Nicolas Batum had 9 assists and 6 rebounds to go with 11 points, adding an amazing 3 blocks on defense. He probably had the most normal game of all the starters. But he appeared to let Miami's defense take him out of it, scoring only 6 before those 5 late free throws pushed him into double figures.
Robin Lopez scored up a storm, hitting 7-10 for 17 points. His 4 defensive rebounds can be forgiven considering he was matched up with Bosh much of the night. But he had only 1 offensive rebound on a night when he was, by far, the biggest man on the court. He also had 3 turnovers which you don't like to see at this position. And, well...Bosh. Lopez just wasn't built to guard him, or really anybody the Heat fielded.
Mo Williams had an awe-inspiring 9 assists and I was only being half-facetious when saying his dribbling made the Heat defenders dizzy. But he only hit a single shot out of 5, committed 5 turnovers on a night when TO's were killing the Blazers, and his defense needs no enumeration
Dorell Wright played with energy but hit only 1-4 shots.
Meyers Leonard hit 3-5, scoring 6 in 11 minutes and grabbing 5 rebounds besides. He did well while facing the basket. But you're still holding your breath every defensive play even when he's the de facto power forward instead of a true center.
Joel Freeland played 15 minutes, got open for 2-4 shots, scored 5, and grabbed 12 monster-beasting rebounds, making the Heat say, "Ouch!" But he did not hand-write a personalized thank-you note to every fan in attendance at the sold-out Moda Center and then fold those notes into origami cranes and fly them accurately to each seat.
Hmmm...come to think of it maybe we shouldn't hold that against him too much.
Having played classic games for the ages in succession against the Clippers and Heat the Blazers now get a return match against the Pelicans in New Orleans. You may recall Damian Lillard snatching a narrow 110-107 victory against the Pels a week ago. It'll be interesting to see what they have in store.
Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review. See what a classic sounds like first-hand!
Hot Hot Hoops will be ha-ha-happy tonight. You can read the Miami point of view there.