The Portland Trail Blazers used a 39-point second quarter to pull away from the Miami Heat and pick up an easy 110-93 win in the Moda Center last night. The Blazers finished with five players in double figures, led by CJ McCollum's 24 points, 7 assists and 4 steals; Hassan Whiteside paced the Heat with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
With the game in hand mid-way through the third quarter, eyes quickly turned to the standings. Both Miami and Portland are in the middle of hotly contested playoff races that were heavily impacted by tonight's result. By virtue of their victory, the Blazers all but secured a top-seven seed in the west and may have given themselves the inside track for the fifth seed, while the loss dropped Miami from third to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings.
The game's decisive moments came early tonight: Portland's benches attacked hard in transition to open the second quarter, sparking a 13-0 run. The Blazers would go on to score 39 points in the quarter. On the other side of the ball, the Heat went ice-cold, managing only 20 points on 35 percent shooting from the field. The Blazers' 19 point advantage in the period gave them a 59-42 lead heading into the locker room.
In the third quarter, the Blazers kept their foot on the gas and continued attacking the teeth of the Heat defense. Early in the period, Portland abused long-time veteran Amar'e Stoudemire for easy scores around the rim, forcing Miami to replace him with Whiteside. Unfortunately for the Heat, Whiteside fared no better. While Portland executed their with precision and exactitude, Miami's offense looked jumbled and confused. The overall result was a 82-54 lead for the Blazers off a Moe Harkless triple with 5:11 to go in the quarter. Miami mustered no further threats, as the Blazers rolled to a 28-point quarter.
The second and third quarters constituted an impressive turnaround for the Blazers after they managed only 20 in the first quarter. Early in the game, Whiteside's effect was palpable, as he shut down multiple Blazers at the rim and generated second chances on offense.
Hassan Whiteside's impact on the Heat has been hotly contested this season, with some arguing that his stats outweigh his impact, while other analyses have suggested that he's become a dominant game-changer. The full range of both arguments were on display tonight against the Blazers.
In the first quarter, Whiteside appeared capable of single-handedly winning the game for the Heat. After checking in for a totally overwhelmed Stoudemire (video), Whiteside immediately altered shots on Portland's first two possessions and generated two second chance opportunities and a lay-up on Miami's first offensive possession.
Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts, however, found ways to mitigate Whiteside's impact. He implored his players to push the ball in the second quarter and take advantage of the Heat defense before Whiteside could get set in the center of the court. The strategy worked and the Blazers scored repeatedly with their early offense. Stotts also called several sets designed to spring shooters for open looks far from the basket and force the Heat to scramble to help or leave shooters open.
The strategy clearly worked, but the Blazers' 17-point lead did not feel entirely safe. Portland had, essentially, avoided Whiteside instead of trying to solve the problem he presented. It seemed possible that if the Heat could improve on their sub-40 percent shooting, and Whiteside continued to scare the Blazers, they could make a run.
In the third quarter Stotts adjusted and sent his guards straight at the Heat's center, assuaging any doubts that Miami would mount a comeback. Stotts recognized that Whiteside lacks a fundamental understanding of pick and roll defense, often ending up out of position and unable to stop a guard from scoring. The Blazers repeatedly took advantage of this by running pick and rolls that drew Whiteside away from the key. Stotts also assigned Ed Davis as screener - Davis exemplary picks eliminated the opposing guard from the play entirely, which left Whiteside on an island against the Portland guards. His poor foot work took care of the rest and the Blazers backcourt repeatedly dove to the bucket for easy lay-ins.
Offensively, the Heat clearly missed Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Head Coach Erik Spoelstra recently sped up the Heat's offense to better facilitate Dragic's style of play and, as an ancillary effect, Spoelstra jettisoned several of the Heat's sets to simplify the offense. However, last night this change was ineffective. The Heat, possibly fatigued on the second night of a back-to-back, failed to push the tempo and repeatedly settled. They primarily ran simple post-ups and first-option drives with little passing or off-ball movement.
On the court, this style of offense looked primarily like Joe Johnson post-ups, which the Blazers easily disrupted with double teams, and Goran Dragic drives into the traffic. Those two player combined for 25 points on 11-23 shooting (1-5 from three) through three quarters. Unfortunately for Miami, the inefficient Dragic and Johnson were two of the Heat's only three players in double figures - not a winning strategy.
The Heat's offensive malaise also played directly to the strength of Portland's defense. The Blazers struggle to guard against complex off-ball movement or to track their man through multiple screens. But they do have several defenders who play solid on-ball defense, and can use their hands to disrupt passing lanes or knock the ball away. Those strengths came in handy against a Miami team content to settle for one-on-one challenges:
Whiteside did lead the Heat with 20 points, but his rudimentary post moves are not developed to the point that they can carry an entire team.
The Blazers got solid performances from most of the roster tonight against the flaccid Heat:
- CJ McCollum led all scorers with 24, including several outside shots that helped loosen up the Miami defense.
- Gerald Henderson and Moe Harkless get the "most aggressive" award tonight. Both players attacked Miami relentlessly and disrupted the Heat on defense. Harkless finished with 14 points and four rebounds, while Henderson added 17 points and was a key factor in the 13-0 run.
- Mason Plumlee's all-around play was huge for the Blazers. He picked his spots well and finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
- Ed Davis acted as an antidote for Whiteside. As mentioned above, Davis' mobility on the perimeter was a key factor in the pick and rolls that sliced and diced the Heat defense, but his hustle on the glass (11 rebounds) also mitigated Whiteside's impact.
- Damian Lillard looked labored and tired all night. He finished with 18 points, but he only shot 5-14; evidence is mounting that his recent slump is fatigue related. He did have 10 free throws, but that was more to do with poor fouls by the Heat than his aggressiveness. At one point, the CSN cameras caught Josh Richardson staring straight into Lillard's eyes (watch the hips!) on the perimeter and then predictably committing a terrible foul as soon as Lillard initiated a move.
With this win, the Blazers' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is now a combined three wins or Houston Rockets losses. Three wins also guarantees at least a seven-seed in the playoffs, and means the Blazers would avoid the historically-great Golden State Warriors, while still possibly playing the historically-great San Antonio Spurs. For full tiebreaker details check out this article.
By virtue of Chicago's loss to Detroit, the Heat clinched a playoff berth despite the loss to the Blazers.
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Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com
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