March 12, 2018, 2:05 pm
OPPONENT: Miami Heat
RECORD: 36-31 (16-18 on road, 6-4 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 104.3 offensive rating (20th), 104.2 defensive rating (ninth), +0.1 net rating (18th)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:30EST, Moda Center (Portland), ESPN
The Miami Heat’s biggest names are out on Monday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. Unfortunately for Terry Stotts’ team, though, actual on-court impact gleaned from the absence of Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside might work in its opponent’s favor.
Whiteside is playing the fewest minutes per game of his career since bursting onto the scene as another Heat reclamation project in 2014-15. Erik Spoelstra has never been more comfortable leaving his towering big man on the bench in important moments, a reality owed both to Whiteside’s diminished effectiveness and the quality of players taking his place. The debate concerning his merit as an All-Defense candidate is over; Miami, ranked ninth in defensive rating, is stingier with Whiteside off the floor for the third time in his four years as a fixture. Zooming in closer, advanced numbers also don’t support his reputation as a dominant rim-protector and rebounder.
Rookie Bam Adebayo gets the start at center with Whiteside out. He’s a raw individual offensive player, but has already grown quite comfortable running dribble hand-offs and sprinting into screens all across the floor, adding some much-needed juice to his team’s offense. Adabeyo is a naturally gifted passer, too, standing in stark contrast to Whiteside, and is one of the fastest big men in basketball running rim to rim. He changes the equation for Miami to just as big an extent on defense. At 6-foot-10 and a chiseled 255 pounds, he can switch out onto most smalls without negative recourse and also offers Spoelstra the option of amping up the aggressiveness of his team’s pick-and-roll coverage – two attributes that always loom large against the Blazers, but especially as Damian Lillard continues strengthening his All-NBA case.
Wade’s counting statistics tell a similarly misleading story as Whiteside’s. He’s averaging 13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 22.8 minutes per game since being traded back to the Heat, a solid box-score line for a 36 year old whose game relied most on athleticism at its peak and still doesn’t include a semi-reliable 3-point shot. But Miami’s net rating over that timeframe is 12.9 points better with Wade on the bench than the court, per NBA.com/stats, and the drawbacks one would expect to prompt that depressing contrast – major decreases in assist rate and share of points scored beyond the arc, for starters – have come to pass. Perhaps unsurprising, at least to Spoelstra and other believers, has been Wade’s play in crunch time. It will be down the stretch of a tight game if the Heat miss him on Monday night; Wade has a 62.4 true shooting percentage and 38.5 percent usage rate in clutch situations since going back home, not to mention a buzzer-beating game-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers in late February.
The game is never as simple as addition by subtraction, though. If the Heat were really better off sans Whiteside and Wade, Spoelstra would go to greater lengths to minimize their influence. That he’s done so at all is still instructive, and certainly allows Miami to play the style that best suits its personnel and has come to define this varied group of overachievers. Justise Winslow, by the way, is the only non-Wade player on this team with a blue-chip pedigree, and he’s finally begun living up to it. The former top-10 pick is shooting an easy career-high 43.5 percent on 2.4 long-range tries per game, a small frequency but wildly-encouraging efficiency, and is currently playing the best basketball of his up-and-down career to date.
Miami’s means of attack on offense is driving the paint, drawing defenders and moving the ball until an open shot emerges. Goran Dragic leads it, and is also the most accomplished finisher among the Heat’s cadre of ball handlers. The ever-improving Josh Richardson, who will probably start defending Lillard, is getting better there, but still can be played almost as much for the pass on drives as the shot. Miami’s incessant probing allows it to crease the paint almost at will; what to do once there is what’s plagued the Heat more than anything else this season.
It’s incumbent on Jusuf Nurkic to play sound pick-and-roll defense, which will be difficult given the rim-rolling ability of Adebayo and spot-up shooting ability of Kelly Olynyk. Portland must stay attached to Wayne Ellington, too, a sharpshooter enjoying a career year whose shot-making prowess Spoelstra has leveraged into an offensive package unto its own. Miami wants to avoid the mid-range, exactly the shot Stotts’ defense is happy to surrender.
The Heat, like the Blazers, are no longer in grave danger of falling out of the playoffs. Miami is playing for positioning more than anything else now, and has every reason to climb as high as possible in the Eastern Conference standings. Given the ongoing struggles of the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, there’s a chance the Heat, currently in seventh place, could avoid LeBron James, the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics in the first round of the postseason if they continue playing well. Portland’s position is different, but no less tenuous considering it remains only three-and-half games up on the ninth-place Denver Nuggets despite tightening its grasp on the three seed.
Another game, another one at Moda Center with playoff implications for both teams. If recent history is any indication, the Blazers should win their 10th straight game and 15th of its last 16 at home. But streaks have to end, right? We’ll find out soon.