After a disappointing Saturday loss to the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans dropped the Heat to 4-7 in their last 11 games, LeBron James and Chris Bosh both aired frustrations with the complacency and lack of focus, especially on the defensive end, that have characterized Miami's play for much of the past three weeks. But with fellow star Dwyane Wade once again sidelined on Monday, this time due to a sprained ankle, the Heat's top two guns were on time and on target when it mattered most during Monday's matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Heat had taken control of the proceedings with a strong third quarter in which James and Bosh combined for 18 points and Miami cranked up the defense to hold Portland to 6 for 16 shooting and only 19 points in the frame. They'd let the Blazers hang around, though, and after a pair of free throws by reserve guard Mo Williams capped a five-minute, 19-7 run that tied the game at 91, the Heat took possession with 30.9 seconds left, looking for one last bit of playmaking to put away a Portland team that had stymied the Miami offense with a zone look that helped create four turnovers in the final 2 1/2 minutes. Here's what they got:
James brought the ball into the frontcourt, winding up in the center of the floor above the 3-point line, defended by Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. As Heat guard Ray Allen cut across the free-throw line from the right corner to the left one, Mario Chalmers slid up from the left elbow to set a screen on Lillard. James dribbled left around his point guard's pick; with Lillard now on his hip, Allen in the near corner drawing the defensive attention of Nicolas Batum and Norris Cole having taken Allen's place in the right corner to stretch Wesley Matthews out, James had a chance to go straight at Blazers center Robin Lopez, one-on-one. James won the matchup, finishing a lefty layup at the tin to give Miami a 93-91 lead with 11.4 seconds left.
As Lillard took the ball out under the Heat basket, Portland had two timeouts remaining, but Blazers coach Terry Stotts — a statistically savvy sort likely mindful of the arguments against calling timeouts in late-game situations, since they allow the opposition to set their defense — had already planned to let his crew take a crack at getting up the floor for a shot at either the tie or the win. When Batum crossed half-court with just over eight seconds remaining, a bit of Blazer miscommunication had both Lillard and Matthews occupying the same space on the left wing above the arc; Lillard snagged Batum's pass there and made a beeline for the bucket, driving around a flat-footed Cole and heading straight for the rim. Whereas the design of Miami's possession gave James a one-on-one at the basket, though, the Heat had help for Cole in the person of Bosh, who rotated off Lopez to block Lillard's layup attempt off the backboard, emphatically and emotionally sealing the 93-91 victory.
James finished with 32 points on 13 for 23 shooting — pretty impressive, considering he started the game 4 for 12, with the latter number tying a career-high for first-period field-goal attempts — six rebounds, five assists, four steals and five turnovers in 38 minutes. Bosh capped his 30th birthday celebration with 15 points, 11 of which came after halftime, eight rebounds, four steals and that one big game-saving block. Miami's offense continued to sputter at times, as the Heat shot just 44 percent from the floor and 5 for 15 from 3-point range, and rang up just 16 assists on 37 made baskets, but they held Portland to to 37.8 percent shooting and just 28.2 percent on a whopping 39 3-point attempts, and they scored 21 points off 15 Blazers turnovers to improve to 12-7 with Wade out of the lineup this season.
Bosh's block finished a frustrating offensive game for Lillard, who led the Blazers with 19 points but did the bulk of his damage from the charity stripe (12 for 14 on free throws) after missing 12 of his 15 tries from the field; he went just 2 for 7 inside the restricted area. Williams added 17 on 5 for 12 shooting off the Blazer bench, while Nicolas Batum chipped in an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double for fifth-seeded Portland, who have lost 8 of their last 12 to drop to 45-26. With things getting tight in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff bracket — the Blazers now sit just one game ahead of the No. 6 Golden State Warriors, 2 1/2 games ahead of the No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies, and three games up on the eighth- and ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — it would behoove Stotts and company to get back on the good foot as soon as possible, lest the surprising early-season contender wind up slipping down, and perhaps even out, of the postseason picture. (Get well soon, LaMarcus.)
As for the Heat, the win not only helps dispel some of the bad vibes surrounding the team after Saturday's loss to New Orleans; combined with the Indiana Pacers' Monday loss to the Chicago Bulls, it also brings Miami within two games of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. If they can come out on top of the scuffling teams' marquee Wednesday matchup, they'll be just one game out of the top spot and even with Indiana in the loss column.
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