Heat Check

Difference in Wednesday’s game: Blazers’ closer was better than Heat’s

Miami Heat Dion Waiters leaps for the basket as Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard reaches to strip the ball in the second quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, December 13, 2017.
Miami Heat Dion Waiters leaps for the basket as Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard reaches to strip the ball in the second quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, December 13, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Five takeaways from the Heat's 102-95 loss the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, which dropped Miami back under .500 at 13-14 and kept coach Erik Spoelstra one game shy of matching Hall of Fame mentor Pat Riley for the most regular season wins in Heat history (454):

1. Great closers like Damian Lillard will usually rise above in the end. The Heat did a stellar job not letting Lillard light them up again. He had 49 points and made nine three-pointers in Portland’s win here last year. Wednesday night, Miami’s defense shadowed him everywhere he went and held him to nine points on 2 of 8 shooting through the first three quarters.

But Lillard took over when it mattered – scoring nine points in the fourth quarter to rally the Blazers while the Heat’s starting backcourt duo of Goran Dragic (11 points, 4 of 12 shooting) and Dion Waiters (17 points, 6 of 18 shooting) sputtered down the stretch.

“We would have had an opportunity, a way out of this, but a couple breakdowns – actually four breakdowns in a row – against a great player hurt us,” Spoelstra said. “Really you almost hate seeing him have a pedestrian boxscore statline going into the fourth quarter. You know he’s not going to sit back and not put his fingerprints on the game going down the stretch and he certainly did that.”

As good as Dragic has been and as clutch as Waiters has been at times, there probably isn’t a general manager in the league who wouldn’t take Lillard before Dragic and Waiters given the choice. And Wednesday’s final moments proved that.

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Miami Heat Wayne Ellington celebrates after a three-pointer in the first quarter as they play the Portland Trail Blazers at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, December 13, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

2. “Mr. Ignitable” came up clutch in the first half, but the Heat could find a way to free him up in the second half. With Tyler Johnson out with a migraine, Wayne Ellington needed to provide a bigger lift and did.

He made five three pointers in the opening quarter and had 21 points by halftime as the Heat led 60-50. Ellington hit his first three with 6:20 to go – shortly after replacing Dragic who picked up two quick fouls – and then buried three more three-pointers within 34 seconds of one another to turn a 21-18 Heat lead into a 30-18 lead. Moments later, Ellington buried his fifth three of the quarter from the corner to make it 33-21.

“I mean that’s Wayne,” Spoelstra said. “He’s ignitable. He’s going to run his patterns full speed every single time as if the play is run for him. Like a great wide receiver, you’re going to have to run 25 patterns as hard as you can and you may only get the ball four times. But he’s going to run every single one, even the ones where he’s potentially a decoy. He’s going to run it like it’s run for him and we say it all the time, the ball finds energy. The ball is finding him and he took care of the rest.

“It’s a shame to have that kind of offensive output off the bench and then up at home, and we weren’t able to close it out. But you have to credit Portland. That’s not their first rodeo in a close game on the road. They’re pretty clear on what their game is going down the stretch, who’s going to get the ball and how they’re going to execute to get the shots they want.”

The shame was that the Heat couldn’t get the ball in Ellington’s hands more in the second half. He took only three shots in the second half and made a three-pointer to put the Heat up 91-89. Then, he went to the bench.

3. Justise Winslow’s left knee has become Heat’s newest health concern. Winslow played eight minutes and 32 seconds in Wednesday's game and had two assists before he left for good because the pain he felt in his left knee coming into the game was just too much to bare.

On Saturday, Winslow banged knees with a Brooklyn Nets player setting a screen for Ellington, but stayed in the game and finished with 15 points and a career-high four three-pointers. He then played just under 23 minutes in Monday's win, finishing with five points, five rebounds and three assists. He said he banged his right knee in Saturday’s game. It’s unclear how or when he tweaked his left knee.

Winslow said the knee got “increasingly tight before the game and I tried to give it a go, but it’s just tight and I didn't want to take away from the team. So I just removed myself.” He said he did not have an X-ray on Wednesday and will meet with Heat doctors on Thursday.

The Heat played just a seven-man rotation with Winslow out. Spoelstra, though, said fatigue was not a factor.

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Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra watches as they play the Portland Trail Blazers at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, December 13, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

4. Free throws came back to bite the Heat in the butt. Miami finished 14 of 23 from the line and missed several big ones down the stretch. Dion Waiters missed back to back free throws in the fourth quarter and then Dragic went to the line and went 1 of 2. In crunch time the misses hurt badly.

“We should have won this game and that’s the bottom line,” Waiters said. “We got to do a better job on the other end, too, including myself. We got to make those free throws and things like that, and that can change the game also.”

Miami was the worst free throw shooting team in the league last season. This season, the Heat ranks 17th at 76 percent. So, while Wednesday’s performance at the line hurt, it’s not usually an issue any more.

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Miami Heat Bam Adebayo looks at a rebound in the fourth quarter as they play the Portland Trail Blazers at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, December 13, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

5. Big man lineup experimentation is intriguing. Maybe it was born out of necessecity, but Spoelstra put both of his healthy centers – rookie Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk – on the floor together Wednesday.

“I like it. That group has been playing together in practice some for the last month anyway,” Spoelstra said. “So we’ve seen it. We’ve liked it and I think we can build on that.”

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