Even knowing an 82-0 season is impossible, a Portland Trail Blazers loss is almost always met with disgruntled groaning and restlessness. But the Blazers losing to the Miami Heat on Wednesday night should be seen as a wake-up call, and a positive moving forward. Here’s why.
As forecasted, this game was heavily swayed by the coaching. Head coach Chauncey Billups, who’s been doing the best coaching job of the season up until this point, was met with a force by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The Miami approach accentuated the clock, and the variety of strategies, in the proverbial game of chess they were playing.
Billups came out doing what he’s done thus far in the season, particularly at home. Defensively, his players were active, and executed his 2-3 zone efficiently. But Spoelstra wasn’t going to let the coach on the other side of the half-court line run misdirection plays from the line of scrimmage, so to speak.
Billups was met with a tenacious Miami defense on the other end that, strategically, ran every Portland player off of the three point line from the outset. Additionally, they pressured heavily on the dribble hand offs at the top of the key — favorably utilized by Billups over the pick-and-roll, especially in the first.
Why might Erik Spoelstra have opted for such a defensive scheme, you may ask? Because the Heat are first in the league in opponents points in the paint per game. They only allow 40 points per contest. Miami is a grossly undersized team. Their center, Bam Adebayo, is only 6’10 on a good day. They have no other player over 6’7 in their starting lineup, as they begin the game with Caleb Martin at power forward.
Something we did not see enough of from Portland, was backdoor cuts off of off-the-ball screens. A team like Golden State is masterful in their ability to feature Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in baseline plays, which free up the paint and allow the two guards to get literally wide open layups at the cup.
With the way Portland has been shooting the rock this year, it may spell success for coach Billups to feature Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, and especially Gary Payton II (when he returns) in said action plays. Miami won the points in the paint matchup 52-40 — a margin too wide to translate into victory.
The 2022-23 Blazers love to play fast, and they were running right out of their shoes to begin the contest. Josh Hart established the tempo, scoring or assisting on many baskets in transition — an area the Blazers were third in the league in coming into the game. Though, Spoelstra put a stop to that in the second half especially. While Portland was obviously still able to run, physically that is, they didn’t make anything of it, scoring wise that is.
A blazing hot seven points off the fast break in the first four and a half minutes of the contest turned into a lackluster 14 points for the game. In 43.5 minutes, the Blazers only scored seven more fast break points. That’s unacceptable. But it’s a good thing, remember. Why?
Because Portland’s zone got cracked, and it affected their man defense as a result. It didn’t get cracked so much by penetration, as it did by the sound of the ball launching from 26 feet and beyond and cuffing the inside of the net. Max Strus was the first to unleash a barrage of threes, and then Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry, and Caleb Martin got in on the fun.
They were able to be so efficient from deep because of the way Portland’s defense was structured. Even when in man, they still held on to remnants of the zone defense, not coming out enough to meet shooters. As a result, Strus found confidence and let it fly, and that confidence trickled down on the rest of his teammates.
Moving forward, coach Chauncey Billups has a lot of material to work with. Even in a loss, Portland did many things well. They got Shaedon Sharpe involved, won the points off turnovers battle, and were able to hang with the Heat in 3 point shooting.
But in film sessions particularly, the coach will probably see what’s been spelled out here, and know how to remedy it. It starts with more effort defensively, in transition especially. Jimmy Butler had three identical dunks on the break in the span of 10 minutes from the end of the second to the third. It moseys its way down to reinvigorating tenacity on the defensive glass — an area Portland triumphed over in three of their four wins.
Utilizing a different zone other than just the 2-3 might be effective. Especially in the third quarter, Adebayo was able to get easy ones out of the dunker spot while Portland was in their zone. Exploring a box and one against teams with high usage players, such as the Grizzlies and the Mavericks — two teams on the schedule coming up — may work to their advantage. They have an easy one against the Houston Rockets to perhaps experiment with such stratagem.
The easiest way to crack a zone is to either space it out by launching from deep, or by working in the middle at the free throw line extended. Portland will have to be more mindful of these things going forward. Easy baskets off cuts, different zones, and more tenacity. If they can implement these three things again, and fast, they should be back to their winning ways in no time.
The Blazers see the Miami Heat again on the road, on Monday, November 7. They’ll have their shot at avenging their loss. Portland and its fans should be feeling good right now. They’re still the number two overall seed in the association and tied for first in the Western Conference. Negating Damian Lillard’s calf injury, which doesn’t appear to be too serious, Portland has an opportunity use this loss as a Kobe Bryant four air balls game, to understand that they’re mortal, and patch up any wounds that appear on tape.