PORTLAND - While you may or may not agree with LeBron James' characterization of the Miami Heat as the NBA's equivalent of the Beatles, of this there can be no doubt: The Heat puts on a heck of a road show. On Sunday, Miami teased the home fans before rallying to win in overtime for the second consecutive game.
The Heat's 107-100 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers demonstrated why Miami has already been so frustrating for analysts given the chore of determining what exactly this team will ultimately accomplish. For three and a half quarters, Miami sandwiched moments of brilliance between periods of listless play and inattentive offensive execution. Then, with the game in the balance, the Heat in general and LeBron James in particular turned it on. Because Portland continued to score, it was almost too late. However, the extra session gave Miami a new life the team made the most of, doubling the Blazers' overtime output to win comfortably.
From the Heat's perspective, this game was all about the Big Three, with the rest of the roster serving as little more than filler. Of the other six Miami players who saw action, only James Jones (five) scored more than two points. The supporting cast combined for 11 shots and just 14 shot attempts, and while scoring isn't everything, the Big Three was leading the way on the defensive end and the glass as well.
That kind of dominance is hardly a recipe for long-term success, but on a single night, it can be enough. That was the case because James and Dwyane Wade were as brilliant in tandem as we imagined they might be when they first teamed up. The Heat still does little to involve James and Wade together, but the offense has still thrived because either is so dangerous in combination with Chris Bosh and any of the other pieces Erik Spoelstra puts on the floor. Since Wade has gotten going after a dreadful start to the season, Miami has emerged as the league's second-best offense on a per-possession basis.
Wade carried the heavy load much of regulation, utilizing his ability to leak out and get easy scores to pile up 15 points in the game's first 8:01. The Heat ended up with 23 fast-break points largely thanks to Wade, who needed just 22 shot attempts (and four tries at the free throw line) to ring up 34 points.
Meanwhile, James was scuffling, turning the ball over under defensive pressure from Nicolas Batum and settling too frequently for jumpers instead of attacking the basket. That changed starkly with just over three minutes left in regulation, when James flipped on the switch with his team trialing by six. Over the game's final 8:08, James outscored Portland 19-16 all by himself, making all six shots he attempted from the field. Suddenly, a pedestrian outing for the two-time reigning MVP turned into a monster: 44 points on 17-of-26 shooting, 13 rebounds and six assists.
As ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst put in on Twitter, Wade and James give the Heat an incredible margin for error. The downside is that they know it, which explains why Miami's intensity ebbs and flows--if not usually in such a dramatic manner as tonight. We still don't know how the Heat will react to being tested by one of the league's toughest teams, like Boston or Orlando, during a seven-game postseason series. Despite Miami's limitations, however, nobody in the league has a ceiling that even approaches the Heat's.
For a team like the Blazers that is in the playoff hunt, there are no moral victories. Still, the Blazers can take some positives from the way they performed in the losing effort. Batum battled James all night long and scored 22 points of his own. James' scores down the stretch were either tough shot attempts or created out of the tricky 3-1 pick-and-roll Spoelstra called with Arroyo screening for James.
Miami's defense (itself third in the league) presented a formidable challenge for LaMarcus Aldridge's recent surge. On the whiteboard in the Heat's locker room before the game, Aldridge earned the respect of getting initials to identify him during plays, as opposed to merely his position number. The Heat surely took notice of what Aldridge has been doing lately, but he raised his game to the level of opposition.
When Miami left Aldridge alone in the post, he went to work. Most noteworthy was his score to put Portland ahead in the final minute of regulation. Operating against Bosh, he got pushed out well beyond the low block on the catch, but was able to rapidly cover ground and get in position to lay the ball up and in. Aldridge did the same repeatedly during the Blazers' most recent road trip. Equally important as a sign of Aldridge's maturation was how he dealt with the double-teams Miami did bring. Dissecting the defense, he tied his career high by handing out seven assists.
The intriguing question that is emerging for Portland coach Nate McMillan is how he juggles point guards Andre Miller and Patty Mills. Given his stature and defensive shortcomings, Mills may never be a starter in the league, but he has regularly sparked the Blazers off the bench. That was the case in tonight's fourth quarter, and McMillan rode Mills nearly the entire period before going back to the veteran Miller for two of the final possessions of regulation. It was Miller who ended up taking and missing two shots on the team's last chance to end overtime out of an Aldridge pick-and-roll.
McMillan continued to go back and forth between his two point guards in the extra session, which seemed to present a challenge for the Portland offense. There are reasons to favor either player down the stretch, especially on nights where Mills is out. He is more capable of stretching the defense with the threat of a three, but Miller is the steadier hand and a far superior defender (Mills' presence was part of the reason for the late 3-1 pick-and-rolls). Whatever his choice, McMillan ought to stick with one point guard rather than attempting to juggle the two players.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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