Every game down the stretch this season matters. And in one night, the Miami Heat fell from seventh in the Eastern Conference to ninth.
Damian Lillard scored a season-high 49 points against the Heat, scorching the Heat to defeat Miami 115-104 on the road.
In a game Miami trailed for the entire second half, Tyler Johnson trimmed the deficit to 87-86 on an and-one layup with 9:29 left to go. Less than a minute later, Lillard checked into the game. He promptly made a 3-pointer. On the Portland Trail Blazers’ next offensive possession, he made a floater. With those two shots, Lillard gave the Blazers some breathing room that the Heat did not take away throughout the rest of the night.
Although the Heat played well enough Sunday to beat some teams, it was not enough against a scrappy team fighting for playoff positioning in the Western Conference with a player, Lillard, who was out of his mind. The 26-year-old guard made nine 3s on the night. He delivered an MVP-level performance Sunday night.
Miami’s first game without starting shooting guard Dion Waiters revealed a lot of offensive holes. Of course, the Heat shot an uncharacteristically bad 9-for-31 from 3-point range. But Erik Spoelstra started Josh Richardson in place of Waiters, and had a starting lineup featuring three players who are not offensive threats — Luke Babbitt and Rodney McGruder, in addition to Richardson. Richardson had a spectacular rookie season last year, but has not played well during his injury-plagued sophomore campaign. Spoelstra should consider starting Tyler Johnson.
With Waiters out for the foreseeable future, Goran Dragic needs to play at the All-Star level he has played at since mid-January. Sunday night, Dragic struggled. He shot 6-of-22 from the field, including 1-for-7 from downtown. If other Heat players hit their 3-point shots Sunday night, it would have opened the floor a bit more for Dragic to operate. But regardless, the Heat’s max-level point guard will need to shoulder more of the offensive load with one-half of the “7-Eleven” duo out.
Hassan Whiteside started the game exceptionally well, scoring the Heat’s first 10 points of the game. He finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks — good numbers by any measure, but Whiteside was effectively neutralized during the second half. The Heat’s 7-foot center picked up his fourth foul late in the third quarter, forcing him to the bench. Seventy-one seconds after checking in during the crucial fourth period, Whiteside committed his fifth foul. Sometimes, Willie Reed doesn’t represent a big drop-off from Whiteside’s production. But against Jusuf Nurik, who has a big body and can fight for offensive rebounding position, it did.
As usual, the Heat’s bench duo of Tyler Johnson and James Johnson played well. Tyler scored 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field, and James had 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting. James Johnson also added seven rebounds and five assists. But Miami’s other scorer off the bench, Wayne Ellington, was just 3-for-10 from downtown. He needs to play better in Waiters’ absence.
The good news is that the season isn’t over yet, and Miami is still in the playoff hunt. The Heat will look to get back on track Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. against the Suns.