They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. The old maxim proved apt for the Portland Trail Blazers tonight as they lost a 108-104 heartbreaker to the Miami Heat. Portland's torrid shooting kept them buoyant throughout the game but lack of consistent defense prevented them from holding onto the leads they built. Miami's Luol Deng hit ringers to keep his team close until the fourth quarter. Then Dwyane Wade exploded for 15 points in the final 6:15 to seal the victory, leaving the Blazers shaking their heads and talking about the one that got away.
The Blazers demonstrated early that this would be a special night on offense. Whatever time the Heat spent preparing defensive schemes went to waste. They would have been better served boarding up neighborhood windows against the onset of Hurricane LaMarcus. Portland's star forward opened up the game spitting out a withering hail of jump shots between 16 and 20 feet. Miami's big defenders couldn't keep up. The Heat switched Michael Beasley on him to stop the rain of terror, but Aldridge just took Beasley down low and scored at the cup. By the time the horn sounded on the first, Aldridge had amassed 13 points.
But he wasn't alone. Sparked by Aldridge's performance, the Blazers would hit 10 of their first 12 shots on their way to 70% shooting in the period with 4 three-pointers thrown in. The Heat might as well have been defending knee-deep in the Everglades.
Sadly, the Blazers couldn't capitalize on their fortune. Their defense didn't match the level of the offense. Miami used smart screens to force gaps from which Portland never recovered. Goran Dragic dished assists like he had a twin working for State Farm. The Heat didn't quite reach the level of the Blazers offensively, but the score still read 32-27 for Portland after one. The onslaught was impressive, but the gap should have been bigger.
The Blazers stretched their lead early in the second quarter thanks to a great run from the bench. Steve Blake matched Dragic's output in assists, putting in his own claim for insurance commercial fame. Chris Kaman played strong on the boards. Meyers Leonard scored. All was well until the 7:00 mark when Portland began a quarter-long habit of missing long shots and letting Miami run out. 16 of Miami's 17 points to end the period came at point blank range. A well-timed microburst from Damian Lillard helped rectify the situation and Portland took a 57-48 lead into the half. With 17 assists, 56% shooting, and a 9-point lead, things were looking rosy.
The night turned sour for Portland in the third period courtesy of good Miami defense and a surprising torrent of three-point shots from the home team. You can live with Luol Deng hitting a couple. When Udonis Haslem hits one, you know things are going bad. Haslem's strike from the right coffin corner with 7:13 left in the third marked the second make in his 764-game, 20,000+ minute career. Miami would end up draining 5 triples in the quarter, out-dueling the Blazers in that department.
Meanwhile Hassan Whiteside came alive on the offensive glass. Then he came alive on the other end, patrolling the lane like a beast. This footage describes Portland's typical attempt at penetration during the second half:
Even worse, Miami copped wise to Portland's habit of "unselfish play", cleverly disguised as over-passing. The Heat began shading their defense towards the pass, netting even more interceptions and run-outs. Miami scored 31 in the third period. Portland rode 11 points from Aldridge to 24 total. This left Blazers ahead 81-79 heading into the fourth, but that lead looked pretty shaky.
True to form, Deng put his foot on the shaky lead and knocked it right over during Miami's first possession of the final period. His three-pointer put Miami back on top. It was the penultimate bucket in a 24-point performance for Deng and set the tone for the quarter. When Deng wasn't draining deep shots, the Heat went to the cup and converted. Portland's solid second-period defense was a distant memory, the shoddy defense of the first and third quarters a recurring nightmare.
But the Blazers weren't going down without a fight. Kaman terrorized the boards, giving Portland its own dominant big man for a brief stretch. Aldridge took the game in hand yet again, trying to stomp out the Heat with determined inside play.
No matter how many times Aldridge's foot came down (and it was plenty...8 more points in the quarter) Miami kept coming back. If you listened to the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast (shameless plug) you heard us discuss smaller players--particularly guards--turning into big trouble for Portland's defense. The breakdown of Miami's scoring in the fourth reads: Hassan Whiteside 2, Luol Deng and Michael Beasley 9, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic 18. As mentioned above, Wade burned the Blazers for 15 points all by himself. The defense wasn't terrible (Wade hit some tough shots) it just wasn't anywhere near adequate. Instead of running away with the game, the Blazers were running on a treadmill, expending energy but never catching up.
Trailing 104-106 with ball in hand and 13 seconds left, the Blazers had a rare mental breakdown. They got stymied inbounding in the frontcourt after a timeout, apparently not realizing that the rules allowed them to throw the ball into the backcourt on the possession. They were forced to burn their last timeout to set up a second inbounds try, only to blow that one too. Their inbounds pass grazed Aldridge's fingers and bounced backwards across the timeline. CJ McCollum leaped to save it but couldn't manage it, leading to an over-and-back violation.
At this point Coach Stotts and his players argued that they were allowed to inbounds to the backcourt, but the right to cross the timeline goes away once an offensive player touches the ball in the frontcourt, as Aldridge did. If they knew the backcourt rule, one wonders why they didn't make more of an effort to get a clear pass by running into the backcourt in the first place. Instead they burned their last 2 timeouts to get 0 clear looks.
Following the turnover Wade made the obligatory foul-for-possession free throws. Lillard missed a final three to leave the score at 108-104, Miami.
It's tempting to focus on the late-game inbounds play that cost Portland a chance to tie or win. Mistakes like this are never welcome, particularly during an ultra-tight playoff seeding rush. You know the Blazers will be tested at least as hard at some point in the upcoming playoffs. They have to respond better.
But that was just a moment, an unusual one at that. If anything it's indicative of the "half-step-off" aura that's surrounded the team since Wesley Matthews went down. Even so, it's unlikely the Blazers will suddenly turn brain-dead. They're still one of the smarter teams in the league. This was just one of those things.
Portland's ongoing defensive struggles are not just one of those things, however. Technically the Blazers didn't let their opponent score 30 in the opening quarter again, but 27 was near enough. They had one really good defensive stretch, allowing only 21 points in the second period, then it was 31 and 29 to close the game. The Heat shot 53% overall, 7-10 from the three-point arc. Every Miami starter shot 50% or above.
Flip side of the coin: The Blazers shot over 70% in the first period and could not build a convincing lead. The Blazers shot 51% for the game and did not win.
15 turnovers against 8 for Miami didn't help Portland's cause. 2 fast break points didn't help. Allowing 52 points in the paint didn't help. Hitting only 12-21 free throws (57%) didn't help. You could even argue that the Blazers would have won had they shot their normal percentage from the foul line. But a 1-point victory when you shot 51% isn't really adequate either. Until they buckle down on defense and get to 50-50 balls for the whole game instead of during select stretches, the Blazers are going to have to settle for win some-lose some results.
LaMarcus Aldridge was indescribably phenomenal in this game. You know that moment when you first realized that you were in love with whomever you're in love with, when that bell first dinged in your head and something poured through your entire self, leaving you smiling and in awe? That's how sweet Aldridge's game was tonight. The Heat tried defending him with multiple players. He was a jackhammer pounding through Kleenex. 15-24 shooting, 34 points, 12 rebounds, a couple of pretty assists, and the label of "unstoppable" all went to his credit tonight.
Damian Lillard remained under control on offense, attempting only 13 shots but hitting 7 for 17 points. His big concerns were two: 3 assists against 4 turnovers and defense. His performance on that end wasn't as achingly bad as some nights, but neither he nor his teammates can get screens under control. Nor can Portland's guards keep close to a decent dribbler. It's not Lillard's fault alone. Rotations aren't working. Energy is sporadic. But it's getting to the point where you just know the Blazers will have to compensate for a backcourt leak every night. That's hard to deal with.
Arron Afflalo shot 5-13 overall but went 4-6 from the magical three-point arc. If he was Portland's dream defensive player, though, he's not living up to the billing. He's not bad, per se, but he's not dreamy.
In the first 25 games of the season Robin Lopez tallied 7 or more rebounds 15 times. In the 18 games since returning from injury he's reached that mark only 8 times. This could be indicative of a mini-slump or of Aldridge becoming a beast on the boards. It could also be indicative of him being forced out of position, having to cover for his teammates on defense. He had 6 rebounds tonight with 6 points and 3 turnovers.
Nicolas Batum low-ended most everything tonight, scoring 8 points off of 6 shot attempts with 6 assists and 4 rebounds. As mentioned, Luol Deng scored 24 and shot 9-13 from the field.
Chris Kaman had 13 rebounds and 9 points off of 4-5 shooting in 18 minutes. He even threw in 2 assists. His mid-season slump appears to be ebbing. Good timing for that.
Steve Blake had 6 assists in 14 minutes but also 4 turnovers.
Dorell Wright shot only 1-4 but put in some nice hustle in his 16 minutes. He's one of the few Blazers looking better than he did early in the season.
Meyers Leonard shot 1-4 and CJ McCollum missed all 3 of his three-point attempts. They still scored 5 and 4 points respectively, which is something.
The Blazers travel tomorrow then face Orlando in the first game of a back-to-back on Friday night.
Portland dropped to 4th place with this loss, 1/2 game behind the Houston Rockets but tied in the loss column. They're 2 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for 2nd place, 1 behind in the loss column. Portland's magic number to clinch the Northwest Division from the Oklahoma City Thunder remains at 8.
You can bet Hot Hot Hoops loved welcoming the old Dwyane Wade back.
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--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge