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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Miami Heat Preview

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The Blazers play the Miami Heat tonight in game No. 3 of their current five-game road trip.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (44-21, No. 3 in the West) vs. Miami Heat (30-36, No. 8 in the East)
Wednesday, March 18
AmericanAirlines Arena; Miami, FL | 4:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews | Out for the Heat: Chris Bosh, Josh McRoberts, James Ennis (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: Hot Hot HoopsTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers continue their five-game East Coast road trip tonight, playing the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Heat began the season still smarting from LeBron James' defection earlier in the summer free agency period. Forwards Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng were brought in to help fill the massive void left by James while center Chris Andersen, forward Udonis Haslem, guard Mario Chalmers and coach Erik Spoelstra were holdovers -- along with wing Dwyane Wade and big man Chris Bosh -- from Miami's recent championship squads.

The Heat knew their chances at hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June took a big hit when James punched his plane ticket back to the Midwest, but the Eastern Conference playoff picture was -- and still is, for the most part -- wide open. With a little bit of luck, good fortune with injury and heightened roles for Wade and Bosh, Miami had an outside shot at getting into the playoffs and potentially making a deep run once there.

After a frustrating start to the year, McRoberts tore up his jersey, then tore the meniscus in his right knee later in mid-December, ending his season 17 games in. Deng has had an efficient season shooting the ball, but his stats are down across the board -- he's averaging the fewest rebounds and second-fewest field goal attempts, assists and blocks per game in his 11-year career.

Even though the Heat's latest signees were either injured or underwhelming to start the 2014-15 season, the team soldiered on behind the efforts of its two superstars. D-League stalwart Hassan Whiteside was signed halfway through the season and ended up starting at center -- he's now second in the NBA in blocked shots per game with 2.4 a night -- and Heat GM Pat Riley pulled off a three-team trade at the deadline, bringing in point guard Goran Dragic and only losing forwards Shawne Williams and Danny Granger, guard Norris Cole and center Justin Hamilton in the process.

The same day that trade went down, unfortunately, Bosh's health was called into question and a few days later, he also went down for the season with blood clots in his lungs.

Since the All-Star break, the Dragic trade and when Bosh's season-ending ailment was announced, Miami has managed to stay afloat by winning eight of 14 games. Still, the team is currently barely holding onto the No. 8 seed in the East and has been in and out of the playoffs for weeks.

Some fans have questioned whether or not the Heat should still cling to their postseason aspirations -- afterall, they're almost assuredly guaranteed a first-round pasting by either the Cavs or Hawks if they do manage to squeak in -- but Riley isn't convinced that attempting to rebuild through the draft is the best plan of attack. As of now, Miami is still gearing up for a playoff push.

The Heat have traded wins and losses their last seven games, going 3-4 in that stretch. On Monday night against Cleveland at home, Miami rode a spirited first-half performance to a convincing 106-92 win. Still, the Heat haven't been able to carry much momentum from game-to-game the last several weeks, following solid wins with head-scratching losses.

Over the last five games, Miami has unsurprisingly performed like a middle-of-the-pack team statistically on the offensive end. The Heat don't score a ton of points or feature the best ball movement most nights, but they also control the pace of the game and try to keep opponents' shot attempts low. Their defense is solid at defending the perimeter and similarly good within.

Wade has been playing like a man on a mission to drag his team into the playoffs, scoring 29.4 points per game the last five on 56.7 percent shooting from the field, also nailing 40 percent of his threes. Half his shots come from the midrange, where he's been good for 47.9 percent of his attempts the last couple weeks. He's also still elite at taking the ball to the rim and finishing, converting on 86.4 percent of his shots near the basket in that span. Wade occasionally struggles with turnovers, but his production more than offsets his gaffes.

Dragic, like Wade, has upped his scoring by getting to the hoop but his jumper is broken right now --  over the last five games, he's made just 11 percent of the three outside shots a game he's attempted. He's passing well and limiting his turnovers, though, and he's still one of the NBA's most potent threats in the open court. The Blazers will have to make sure Dragic isn't able to force them into too many turnovers tonight and get out on the run, because his transition scoring accounts for 40 percent of all his points.

Deng's been slumping a bit of late, making just 35.7 percent of his field goals the last handful of games while hitting just a quarter of his outside shots. Haslem, starting at power forward, barely shoots and when he does, it's not particularly pretty.

Whiteside starts up front and though he's made half his shots the last five games, opposing teams are limiting his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll and he's having a difficult time dealing with the extra attention from opposing defenses. Still, much of Whiteside's value comes as a rim protector and along with his shot-blocking ability, he also patrols the paint well and alters many of the shots he doesn't get a hand on.

Spoelstra's bench unit has been unproductive lately, buoyed mainly by Chalmers' 58.2 percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent shooting from deep the last five games. Recently re-acquired wing Michael Beasley has shot well inside but hasn't been able to connect on his jumper regularly. Former NBA-castoff Henry Walker, forward, has made his way into the rotation and though he's been aggressive with his shot, he's only made a third of his tries lately. Andersen is a great finisher inside -- mostly off put-backs -- but doesn't shoot much, otherwise.

The Blazers have had mixed results in five games without guard Wesley Matthews in the lineup. Quality wins over the Rockets, Pistons and Raptors in that time have been encouraging for fans, but tough losses to the 'Wolves and Wizards in the last week-and-a-half have shown the team still has some work to do on either end of the floor.

Portland's had the fourth-worst Defensive Rating in the NBA over the last five games but has the No. 2 Offensive Rating, according the NBA.com. The Blazers have been putting up big points with plenty of ball movement and great shooting from all over the court, for the most part, but the defense hasn't lived up to the elite billing it's earned over the course of the season; Since the 121-113 loss to Minnesota 11 days ago, Portland has given up 104.4 points a night (No. 22 in the league), 23 assists per game (No. 21), 47.5 percent field goal shooting (No. 23) and 36.6 percent shooting from deep (No. 16).

The Blazers were partially sunk by 25 fast break points from the Wizards on Monday, but Washington also hit half its shots, 58.4 percent of its threes, went to the line 26 times and racked up 25 assists. On the flipside, the Blazers managed to force just six turnovers and score four points in transition.

Point guard Damian Lillard had 14 points on 5-for-18 shooting Monday night. He helped spread the ball around the floor, but if he's only registering 14 points on that many shots, Portland's generally going to have an uphill battle trying to keep up on a nightly basis. Pistons center Andre Drummond -- like Whiteside tonight -- posed a legitimate shot-blocking threat in the paint last Friday. Lillard still finished 9-of-12 from the floor and 5-of-7 deep against Detroit, so he shouldn't be too rattled by the presence of Whiteside, the 7-foot NBA reclamation project.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has been Portland's rock lately, hitting 56.2 percent of his shots for 23.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game the last five. Aldridge hasn't been getting all the foul calls he's accustomed to, but he's been the Blazers' most consistent source of offense from possession-to-possession and will keep Whiteside, Haslem and Andersen busy all night trying to contain him. Aldridge's high release point on his jumper and ability to suck interior defenders out into the midrange allows him to score and create opportunities inside and around the perimeter for his teammates when the defense over-compensates to slow him down. Miami generally plays the passing lanes well but Portland's signature ball movement -- which often starts with Aldridge or Lillard -- should be able to provide looks against a Heat defense that relies on heavy minutes from several youngsters and a few players well into their 30s.

Wing Nicolas Batum had a bad shooting night against the Wizards a couple days ago, but it didn't significantly sink his 47.8 percent shooting from the field the last five games or his 50 percent three-point shooting in that span. Batum contributed with 15 rebounds on Monday -- a big part of his game -- but is probably at his best when he's scoring and creating for his teammates, as well.

Guard Arron Afflalo has cashed in on 44.4 percent of his threes the last five games, performing well in his main role in coach Terry Stotts' offense. He's shot fairly poorly otherwise, though, and he's struggling with fouls. Wade is an expert at taking the ball to the hole and drawing contact, so Afflalo will have to be careful if he wants to log big minutes tonight without sending him to the line for easy points.

Centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman have been models of consistency on offense lately, combining for 12-of-18 shooting Monday against the Wizards. Lopez generally takes what the offense gives him and scores off mismatches, put-backs, tip-ins and in single-coverage when he finds himself guarded by a smaller player down low. Kaman, on the other hand, is Portland's most aggressive shot-taker off the bench, often looking for his own offense. Both players have shot about 63 percent from the field the last several games.

Stotts' bench crew consists of Kaman, guards Steve Blake and CJ McCollum, forward Dorell Wright and big man Meyers Leonard. McCollum, Blake and Leonard have all made at least 40 percent of their threes the last five games, all attempting 2-3 a night. Of the five reserves who get the most minutes for Portland, only Kaman has been a factor in every game lately. Blake's been able to produce as a distributor when his shot's off or if he's not getting good looks, but Wright and McCollum both generally need to get into a good shooting rhythm to find success on the floor.

The Blazers have been one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA lately, while the Heat typically fall somewhere on the other end of the spectrum. Whiteside is a beast on the glass -- especially defensively -- and Portland's frontcourt will have to keep a body on him at all times to prevent him from using his length to dominate. Andersen and Haslem are both good rebounders by percentage, and Deng, Walker and Beasley all put in work on the boards from the wings. The Blazers can counter with Aldridge -- one of the NBA's premiere rebounders this year -- along with Kaman and Lopez up front. Batum and Lillard should help offset Miami's active rebounding wings.

The Heat are backed into a corner right now; They can't lose many more games before the playoffs are officially out of reach. As of now, they are clutching to the eighth seed in the East and are just as close to the No. 6 spot as they are the No. 10 spot. Miami is hoping to ride some of the momentum from Monday's big home win over the Cavs into the stretch run of the season, but Portland is also fighting for playoff positioning and certainly won't roll over, especially after the tough loss to Washington a couple days ago.

The Blazers should be able to find holes in Miami's defense, but the Heat usually play tough on that end won't make it easy from the three-point line and especially not at the basket. Portland will have to weather Wade playing probably his best basketball of the season and Dragic's proclivity for scoring in open space, but the Blazers can also overwhelm opposing teams with heavy doses of Aldride, Lillard and three-pointers from the supporting cast. If Portland can find enough lapses in the defense to attack efficiently -- especially from outside -- Miami may not have the artillery to keep up with one of the NBA's most efficient offenses.

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter

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