The Portland Trail Blazers gave their best defensive effort of the season on Saturday night. For only the third time since the current campaign started, they held an opponent under 100 points. The first two efforts yielded wins, as did this one. Without a single player reaching 20 points, the Blazers took down the Miami Heat 99-92, sending their record back above .500 and preparing them for a long set of road games ahead in which their defense will be tested again.
The opening stanza set the tone for the evening as Hassan Whiteside patrolled and controlled the paint on both ends for the Heat. With 10 points and 2 blocks in the first 7 minutes he staked claim to the court with little resistance. Portland looked disheveled in the early going. The starting unit offered a buffet of sloppy passes, forced shots, and missed opportunities. Miami shot 62 percent from the field, Portland only 32 percent. The Heat carried a 29-21 advantage into the second.
While the Blazers’ offense was misfiring repeatedly, they had to find a lifeline somewhere. Extra effort plays and a commitment to defense kept them within shouting distance. Even while the Heat were on fire, Portland’s defensive energy didn’t slack. The triumvirate of Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, and Meyers Leonard offered outstanding defensive contributions. Turner’s individual +/- was a staggering +16 in the period and he was involved in nearly all of Portland’s good plays. He tallied 3 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block & 1 steal in the period. Portland outscored Miami 34-20 in the second to take a 55-44 lead into halftime.
The second half started more like the first quarter than the second. Portland’s offense was nowhere to be found and Whiteside dominated the paint. Worse, Miami point guard Goran Dragic got to wherever spot he wanted. The Heat rolled an 11-0 run to start the period before the Portland reserves came in to save the Blazers once again. (Yes, the Trail Blazers bench played the role of hero not once, but twice this evening.) Crabbe chipped in 5 quick points while Leonard and Turner pushed the Miami offense away from the rim and slowed their scoring. Portland carried a 73-66 lead into the final frame.
As the fourth quarter commenced the Heat remembered they still had Hassan Whiteside on their roster and that he had been unstoppable to this point. They gave him the ball. It worked well. Miami opened up a 7 point lead faster than you could say, “Missed Free Agent Target”. The Blazers were forced to claw their way back one more time.
Fortunately the home team found a hero to carry them through the Whiteside barrage. With 3 minutes left in the game the Heat up by 6, CJ McCollum checked in for the Blazers. 6 seconds later he knocked down a three to cut the lead in half. A minute later his lay-up over Whiteside would tie the game up at 92. Portland’s defense stiffened, denying everything the Heat threw their way. A bucket from Maurice Harkless and another from McCollum—backed by closing free throws by Mason Plumlee and Crabbe—were enough to ice the game for the Blazers.
The defensive end was good to Portland tonight. They lost a few battles: points in the paint (42-38), second chance points (11-7), and points off turnovers (12-8). But they stayed close in every category and ran the short handed Heat ragged on the fast break 15-6. “Fast Break” may look like an offensive category but tonight those points were generated by constant pressure all over the floor.
The Blazers were unable to solve the Whiteside riddle in the paint, or anywhere else for that matter. He accumulated 28 points, 16 rebounds, and 5 blocks in 41 minutes. Even while ceding the middle to yet another opposing center, the Blazers held Miami to 6-22 from the three-point line and only sent them to the line for 15 free throws. Doing a couple of things well is far superior to doing nothing well.
Portland peppered the box score with 6 steals and 9 blocks. They won the rebounding battle 47-46. On a night where they shot under 41 percent from the field, they made up for it by out working their opponent. This is only the second win this season for the Blazers when they’ve shot under 43 percent.
Maurice Harkless was everywhere for the Trail Blazers: diving for loose balls, chasing down blocks, jumping into passing lanes, and running the floor in transition all night long. These are all things we expect from Harkless at this point, more so since Al-Farouq Aminu’s injury. Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner followed suit, slowing down Miami almost every time they stepped on the floor. Gone were the blown assignments or missed keys, replaced by solid rotations and contested shots.
Over the last two games Portland’s much-bemoaned defensive deficiencies have lessened, maybe even becoming strengths. Guess what? They’ve tallied two straight victories. That’s not a coincidence. If the Blazers are going to stay on track, this will be a key.
Maurice Harkless gets all of the game balls tonight. His 17 points and 7 rebounds don’t come close to telling the story. Whenever the Blazers needed a play Coach Stotts rubbed the magic lamp and “poof” Harkless appeared. The Heat out on a 3-on-2 fast break? Rub, rub, rub: Harkless gets a come-from-behind block. Portland needs a bucket to stop a mini-Heat run? Rub, rub, rub: Harkless pokes the ball free, takes it end to end, and dunks. The Blazers need to secure a rebound to ice the game? Rub, rub, rub: Harkless comes from the baseline to snag the ball from Whiteside. “Genie, you’re fr...uhhh...under long-term contract!”
Allen Crabbe dug into his rucksack and found his jumper tonight. Over the last 2 games he’s scored 31 points by shooting 9/19 from the field, 6/10 from three. He’s no longer hesitating on shots and that bodes well for the Blazers. His 16 points off the bench were crucial in pushing this game into the win column.
Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard are developing a bit of a relationship on the floor. With this duo working the pick and roll on offense and playing off each other on the defensive end, the Blazers’ bench has held and even pushed leads out lately. Tonight they combined for 14 points and 12 rebounds while sporting a +11 and +6 in the +/- department respectively.
Neither Damian Lillard nor CJ McCollum had spectacular games tonight. If they’re going to have an off evening, they picked a good one. Apparently concerted defensive effort and solid bench play can save your bacon even when your star guards aren’t at their best. Who knew? The Blazers did need McCollum’s heroics to pull it off in the end though.
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Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
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