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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Miami Heat Preview

The playoffs are closing in and the both the Heat and the Blazers find themselves in the middle of a very crowded playoff picture

The playoffs are right in front of them, can the Blazers prove preseason expectations wrong and secure a spot?
The playoffs are right in front of them, can the Blazers prove preseason expectations wrong and secure a spot?
Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (40-36) vs. Miami Heat (44-31)
Saturday, April 2
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Meyers Leonard (Out - shoulder) | Miami injury report: Chris Bosh (Out - Blood clot ) Tyler Johnson (Out - Shoulder) Dwyane Wade (Questionable - Neck)
SBN Affiliate: Hot Hot Hoops

This is the time of the season that you hear writers, coaches and even players start referring to games as 'crucial' and talking about a team's 'Magic number.' Fans are now not only cheering on their own team, but vigorously rooting against teams with similar records. What could this all mean? It means the NBA playoffs are almost here!

This is always a crazy and exciting time for the NBA season and this year is no different. Just a half game separates the No. 3 seed from the No. 6 seed in the East and just 1.5 games separate the No. 7 seed from the No. 9 seed. In the West, just four games separate the No. 5 seed from the No. 9 seed. At this point, every game matters.

Luckily for NBA fans, on Saturday, two teams right in the thick of the playoff chaos will be battle it out in Moda Center as the Portland Trail Blazers host the Miami Heat.

Miami is currently tied in third place with the Charlotte Hornets in the East but holds the tiebreakers, while Portland sits as the current sixth seed in the West. The Blazers have an opportunity to jump up one more spot before the playoffs begin if they can get hot and pass Memphis who has just a 1-game lead. Statistically speaking, however, neither is even guaranteed a playoff berth yet either. Portland has six games remaining and Miami has seven.

The Blazers and Heat find themselves in a similar place in the standings, but these teams are very different. Portland enters Saturday's game as the fifth-youngest team in the NBA with an average age of 24.7, and an average of 3.1 years of NBA experience. The Heat have the fourth-oldest roster with an average age of 28.9 and the second most experience with an average of 7.8 years.

Miami is led by a group of experienced and decorated veterans. Four of their starting five of Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, and Amare Stoudemire all have multiple All-Star selections, something no other NBA starting 5 can claim . This does not even include 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh who was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg in February and has not played since. The fifth starter for the Heat? Goran Dragic who has not made an All-Star team, but does have a third team All-NBA selection.

The experience on this Heat squad is very impressive but it is third year big man, Hassan Whiteside, who has been putting up video game-like numbers this season. Whiteside has averaged 14.1 points, 11 rebounds and a league-leading 3.8 blocks per game on 62 percent shooting. Three times this season he has had a triple-double with points, rebounds, and blocks. No other player has done that even once in the last three seasons.

Although Whiteside has cemented himself as an NBA force, and is going to get paid like one this offseason, his road to get to where he is at now is one of the most unorthodox and winding roads there are. Whiteside played one year in college at Marshall where he averaged 13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.4 blocks. At a legit 7-foot with great explosiveness for a player of his size and a ridiculous 7-foot-6 wingspan, he was all but guaranteed a spot in the NBA. During his college career, websites like NBADraft.net had him pegged as one of the best prospects in the draft and many others had him as a potential lottery pick. (Here is their draft report on him. In comparison here is Bismack Biyambo's draft report who was selected tenth overall the following year). This all may have influenced Whiteside's decision to leave college early. Whiteside was a rare talent with limitless potential, but he was still very raw and had some maturity issues that eventually cost him the payday he was seeking. Whiteside was selected with the third pick of the second round, No. 33 overall, by the Sacramento Kings. There he played just a combined 111 minutes in the NBA over his first two years, spending most of his time in the NBA's D-league. After two years, Whiteside's team option was not picked up, and he was waived.

Whiteside had one of the best NBA bodies after adding a few pounds with Sacramento and still could not land an NBA contract. He spent the whole next year in the D-League playing less than 20 minutes per game but putting up per 36 minute numbers of over 20 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. Still no one took a chance. It was not until his first game the following year where Whiteside went 10-11 with 12 rebounds and 4 blocks in 26 minutes that teams started to take notice. A player who had been criticized for lack of effort had improved leaps and bounds and became arguably the best player to ever come out of the D-league. (Matt Barnes and Danny Green are other suitable candidates for the award) Even in a league with the best scouts and best player development in the world, sometimes a gem still manages to slip past everyone.

Whiteside has developed a nice touch around the basket, even out to about 12-15 feet if he has space. In the lane, his favorite move is a hard dribble to the left that he keeps very low and then a long spin back to his right hand. He finishes very well to his right but when going to his left he either tries to dunk it or just goes back right.

Keys to a Blazer Victory

No weak links defensively: Miami has a lot of weapons and they can all hurt in different ways. Wade may not play but there is still plenty of talent on this roster to make up for it. In Friday's game against the Sacramento Kings, Wade sat and was replaced by Gerald Green who scored 33 points after playing a combined 30 minutes his previous 5 games. Over the last 11 games, 8 different Miami heat players have scored over 20 points at least once. There are not a lot of weak links on this offensive unit so Portland needs to make sure sure there are none on the defensive side of the ball either.

Run!: As mentioned before, Miami is the fourth oldest team in the league. With the exception of the 2 rookies, Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson, and the 26-year-old 7 footer Whiteside, everyone on the active roster is 29 years old or older. Miami is a good fastbreak team, but overall they play as the fifth slowest team in the NBA with a pace of 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes. The Blazers need to use their speed, youth and depth and not allow Miami to set up in their defense. They especially need to try to beat Whiteside down the floor and attack while the rim is unprotected.

Handle Whiteside: There are not many players who effect a game defensively enough that you have to plan around them. Whiteside is one of those players. The Blazers are a great 3-point shooting team but with Meyers Leonard injured for the year, they do not have a 5 who can guard Whiteside and also force him out to defend the perimeter. Attacking a great shot blocker starts with the player that he is guarding. When players drive, the Blazer bigs need to be aware of where Whiteside is and try to seal and keep contact. Blocking a shot for someone with the length of Whiteside is easy if he has a clear path. If Whiteseide has to battle with Mason Plumlee or Ed Davis just to get into position, that block becomes much more difficult. Shot blockers tend to miss box-outs often so the Blazer bigs need to be on the glass and punish him when he sacrifices rebound position for an attempt to block a shot.

Offensively, Whiteside has become even more of a force lately. Over the last 2 weeks, Whiteside has averaged over 20 points on 72 percent shooting. He needs to be forced to his left and kept away from the basket. Any time he can get his feet planted and jump in a smooth motion, it is going to be a tough to stop any ally-oops or dunks. He needs to feel constant contact from the Blazer bigs to keep him planted and immobile.

Final Thoughts

Its playoff time and the Blazers need to get in that mindset. After a great win on Thursday against the Boston Celtics, Portland needs to keep up the intensity for the rest of the season and build momentum for the playoffs. Miami is a talented and battle tested team and will be a great gauge to how serious Portland is with their playoff opportunity.