Portland Trail Blazers Guard Damian Lillard has been on fire since the all-star break. Before tonight’s game against the Miami Heat, Lillard averaged 29.7 points in 12 post-All-Star games - good for no. 2 in the NBA.
Tonight, Lillard made 29.7 look pedestrian. The Blazers’ captain torched the Heat for 49 points on only 21 shots. Nine of his made field goals were 3-pointers, tying a single game franchise record.
But the best part? Lillard’s 49 propelled the Blazers to a 115-104 victory over the Heat. Portland has now won three in a row, and finished a five game road trip with an impressive 4-1 record. The Blazers trail the Denver Nuggets by only a single game for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
Lillard was NBA Jam levels of on fire from the opening tip tonight. He scored 15 points in the first quarter - most of his shots coming from the perimeter. Lillard’s effectiveness from outside early in the game was important, as it opened up the middle for inside scoring later on.
For Miami, Hassan Whiteside started the game by doing his best Lillard impersonation. Miami’s starting center scored the Heat’s first 10 points on an impressive variety of post moves (e.g. jump shots, sweeping hook shots, drop steps) over Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers steadfastly refused to double, and, eventually, Whiteside did cool off. When the quarter ended, the Heat lead 29-28.
Both teams went to their benches to start the second quarter, and the offenses stalled. The Heat started playing swarming perimeter defense with Whiteside resting, but did little to protect the rim. The Blazers took advantage by attacking the paint:
The Blazers made some nice defensive plays of their own on the perimeter, with Allen Crabbe leading the charge. But, like the Heat, they failed to protect the interior. Miami scored 16 of their 22 points in the paint in the second. Lillard finished with “only” 6 in the quarter, and the Blazers led 52-51 heading into the half.
Lillard stayed hot in the third quarter, scoring 12 points on 3-for-4 shooting from the field, while also drawing 4 free throws. Almost inexplicably, the Heat big men continued to fall back on the pick and roll, leaving Lillard open to jack clean shots coming off screens. Finally, the defense did get a little more aggressive on Lillard, but Nurkic took advantage and scored around the rim (7 points in the quarter). The Blazers led 85-79 heading into the third.
Lillard put the exclamation point on an (almost) career night with 16 points in the quarter. When Miami did get the ball out of his hands, Nurkic played like a monster on the pick and roll. Miami had no answer but to hack the Bosnian Beast - he drew four fouls in three minutes in the middle of the quarter. Overall, Nurkic scored 10 points, and grabbed 4 rebounds.
The clinching play of the game came, appropriately, when Nurkic was fouled while tipping in a missed shot. He missed the free throw, but Crabbe grabbed the rebound and Lillard immediately drained a 3-pointer. The five-point play put Portland ahead 104-93 with 4:47 remaining. From there, every time Miami threatened, Lillard hit another shot to keep them at arm’s length. The final score was 115-104 and Lillard finished 2 points shy of his career high (51).
It would have been easy for the Blazers to fall victim to fatigue in the fourth quarter tonight. After all, they were finishing up a 5-game trip, on the second night of a back-to-back, playing an afternoon game. But Lillard would simply not allow a loss. He started the night by sniping from deep, but also found his way into the paint and drew 12 free throws. It was a masterful performance - quite probably the best scoring night of his career.
With that said, Miami does deserve some criticism for their less than stellar defense. Even after Lillard got hot from deep the Heat big men repeatedly dropped off of him on the pick and roll to prevent easy lob passes into the paint. This left Lillard with plenty of air space to shoot/drive, or draw a foul on the scrambling defender.
When Miami did adjust, poor footwork from Whiteside still allowed the Blazers to score. Nurkic, especially, benefited with several easy buckets:
Overall, Whiteside made several nice plays - he had 3 blocks - but the Blazers managed to pick him apart on multiple occasions. His decision making left the Heat in a bad spot, and belied his reputation as an all-NBA defensive talent. On the play above, for example, Whiteside leaves his man open AND fails to contain or impede the penetrating guard. He essentially removed himself from the play entirely, and the Blazers scored easily as a result.
The Blazers were guilty of similar transgressions on defense. Portland’s perimeter defenders allowed penetration and the help defense froze. This forced Nurkic and Noah Vonleh to choose between preventing a lob pass, or stopping the easy score. Not a great scenario:
Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson combined for 31 points, as a result. When Portland did adjust by more aggressively covering penetration, the Heat had no problem finding inside scoring. James Johnson doubled his season average and scored 24, and almost all of his shots came within a few feet of the hoop. Given the way the Blazers played defense, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Dion Waiters plays or the Heat shoot better than 9-for-31 on 3-pointers (29 percent), and the final score is reversed.
But, of course, it’s equally probable that any increase in offense from the Heat would have been offset by even more fireworks from Lillard. In the post game interview he told CSN’s Brooke Olzendam that, “We gotta empty the clip every night.” It’s safe to say Lillard had no bullets left when the final buzzer sounded in Miami.
It was Damian Lillard’s night. He was 9-for-12 on 3-pointers and was perfect from the line. One of the more efficient box scores you’ll see all season. In the closing minutes the Heat doubled Lillard at all times or he would have had a career high.
CJ McCollum had a competent game alongside Lillard. He finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. The Blazers didn’t need much from him tonight given Lillard’s output.
Lillard may have been the star, but Jusuf Nurkic easily won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His physical play down the stretch overwhelmed the Heat and made a huge difference. Without him, the game is very much in doubt. 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Noah Vonleh looked good again, finishing with 11 points and 7 rebounds in 29 minutes. He’s slowly making a case that he truly deserves the starting spot he has occupied mostly by default for the better part of the last two seasons.
Maurice Harkless had only 2 points and 5 rebounds. The Blazers tried to post him up against the smaller Dragic on several occasions, to mixed results. He sprained his ankle in the third quarter and stayed in the game, but looked noticeably hampered. Ankle injuries often swell up the next day once the game is over, so this is a situation to watch.
Allen Crabbe was active tonight, despite shooting only 2-for-9 from the field. He had several deflections and made a couple hustle plays. The shot will fall on most nights, but if he brings this kind of energy more regularly he could be very valuable.
Evan Turner had an up and down outing in his second game back from injury. He did have one remarkable off-balance, scoop shot post move that would have made Nurkic proud.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @EricG_NBA