For one quarter, the Portland Trail Blazers had the fire and moxie of a team well on its way to challenging for a 5-0 record. For the next three quarters, they effectively found out precisely why the Miami Heat were within a few possessions of the NBA Finals in the season prior.
Despite hanging tough in a competitive start, the Blazers ultimately ran out of gas, earning their first defeat in the process with tonight’s 119-98 loss. Perhaps even more impactful in the immediate future is that six-time All-Star Damian Lillard, who turned in 22 points in just 26 minutes, ended up being ruled out early after suffering a right calf strain.
The loss drops the Blazers to a respectable 4-1, still in a two-way tie for No. 1 in the Western Conference. Here are a few quarter-for-quarter takeaways from tonight’s game.
With three of the gold medalists from the 2021 Olympics on the floor in Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant and Bam Adebayo, it was difficult to not remember how cohesive they looked on basketball courts all throughout Japan. With how frenetic tonight’s first quarter pace was, it looked as though they were preparing for a track meet.
Neither of these teams rank among the top-20 in pace in 2022-23, but the Blazers were the beneficiaries of the accelerated pace, forcing seven first quarter turnovers and stymying the Heat with that go-to zone defense. Often used as a change-of-pace defense, Portland went to it on the game’s first play to force the Heat — who entered the game shooting just 33.1 percent from deep — out of their groove.
Never one to back down from a chess match, Erik Spolestra had adjustments of his own, utilizing a trap to get the ball out of Lillard’s hands, particularly near the end of quarters when he’s particularly dangerous. Ultimately, the Blazers were able to force that Butler-Herro-Adebayo trio into a 1-of-10 start, riding that wave to a 31-28 advantage.
Eastern Conference finalists don’t grow on trees, and it didn’t take the Heat much time to deliver this very message to the Blazers. After underperforming in that opening frame, there was a noticeable pep in the step of Miami’s stars, most notably Butler and Herro, which, when paired with Max Strus’ hot shooting, proved difficult.
The second quarter felt like one in which the Blazers had an opportunity to put their foot on Miami’s necks; following a Josh Hart 3-pointer, they had an eight-point lead at 49-41 with 5:29 left. But, Miami seemed to find a wrinkle in bringing in their first-round pick Nikola Jovic, and his presence seemed to free up added space for the drivers. Shot quality was similar, though the Heat were able to get their attempts to drop with a little bit more frequency, allowing them to open up a slight lead.
Also noticeable was that Shaedon Sharpe seemed to have an extra gear to him in his fifth NBA game. The talented rookie had showed poise in the prior games, but there was an added moxie in his attacking closeouts and hunting his shots in this game; by halftime, he’d nearly closed in on double-figures. Though, the Blazers’ first quarter advantage became a five-point deficit.
With three of their four season-opening wins coming after trailing at halftime, there was reason to be confident in the Blazers’ comeback attempt. The effort itself was at times valiant; Anfernee Simons offered up three triples in just the third quarter alone, and he and Lillard seemed intent on cutting into the deficit. Unfortunately, Miami grew discontented with trading buckets and opted to give themselves more breathing room.
After Kyle Lowry’s fifth 3-pointer — and as a reminder, he came into tonight’s game with more trade rumors than triples made — it appeared to just be one of those nights. Portland had considerable trouble defending Miami when Butler operated out of that high and mid-post area. On defense, they tightened up, looking a lot like the powerhouse from the season prior.
On back-to-back possessions, Portland was relegated to 3-point attempts by Justise Winslow, and then, as a final death blow for the night, it was announced that Damian Lillard would be ruled out with a right calf strain. All factors included, Portland began to look slightly like the Blazers of old, with 16 turnovers after three quarters, and predictably, the scoreboard told a similar story: Heat, 94; Blazers, 81.
As they had down throughout the night, the Heat quickly shut the door on any potential comeback attempt, not allowing a single field goal over the first four minutes.
That trusted 2-3 zone (or some variation) had become something of a saving grace for the Blazers’ success over these first four games. But with time winding down in the fourth quarter, the Heat effectively found a spoon, and provided Portland’s shooters with a taste of its own bitter medicine.
With six minutes to go, the Blazers elected to turn to the bench with some of their deeper reserves, including the likes of Greg Brown III and Jabari Smith. Spirited and ambitious as they were, there were unfortunately no 26-point plays to be made on this night. The 42-year-old Udonis Haslem ended up logging his first minutes of the season, a surefire sign that the Heat laid the SmackDown! on an opponent, and sure enough, the Blazers fell to 4-1 on the 2022-23 campaign.
The Blazers can lick their wounds and prep for a Friday night duel with the improved-yet-struggling Houston Rockets on Friday, Oct. 28 at 7 pm PT.
Stay tuned for Ryne Buchanan’s extended look at tonight’s game shortly.