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Miami gets the spark it needs after dominating Portland

Heat needed a solid win against a quality opponent with several players stepping up on the road.

Miami Heat v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

As far as pick-me-ups go, the Miami Heat’s dominant win on the road against the erstwhile undefeated Portland Trail Blazers was the shot in the arm last year’s Eastern Conference finalist needed to spark what’s been an uninspiring start to this NBA season.

Jolted by the strong play of key reserves Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus, the Heat ended the pattern of playing catch-up to Portland late in the first half then leaned on their heavyweight hitters to build a double-digit lead in the third quarter, which propelled them to their second win in five games, and first on the road.

For the first time since tipping off in that dastard home loss to Chicago for the opener, Miami finally looked like the joyous, feisty, and dangerous squad from last season that claimed the top-seed in their conference only half a year ago.

The Heat finished with an offensive rating of 124 and defensive rating of 101 against one of the hottest teams in basketball. The latter was somewhat guided by the departure of Damian Lillard (calf) late in the third quarter, but by then, Miami had already catapulted ahead with a threatening margin. They shot an EFG% of 59.2 and TS% of 62.4.

Meanwhile Anfernee Simons, one of the early season’s candidates for breakout All-Star, was limited to 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting.

It was a contest that displayed how dangerous the Heat still are when their outside shot is falling, when they aren’t getting killed on the boards, when they can limit the opposition’s transition opportunities, when they break up go-to sets, and when they can run on the break themselves.

As far as coaching masterclasses go, Portland’s sophomore mentor Chauncey Billups probably learned a few tricks from Xs and Os savant Erik Spoelstra on defensive counters.

Portland surprised opponents on opening week with a 2-2-1 zone pressure defense that would turn to a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt, which in turn would put a wrench in the sets opponents would like to run, particularly after time-outs.

Spoelstra deployed a similar tactic and had Martin, who played his best game as the Heat’s starting PF, press Lillard the entire way down the court every time he received an inbound. Simons later on received similar treatment.

This put a wrench in the drag screen action the Blazers like to run with him and Jusuf Nurkic and delay an offense that likes to score quick hitters in the opening 6-8 seconds of the shot clock. Except for a few plays in the first period, the home team couldn’t capitalize as well on their favored slot attacks, typically from Josh Hart and Jerami Grant, because Miami’s defense had enough time to set-up.

Simons dealt with early foul trouble which regressed the threat of the “wide” action Portland likes to run with him as the curler and Lillard as the ball distributor, and vice versa.

Lillard, a superstar scorer, got his buckets early and earned trips to the foul line as the threat of his outside shot got defenders on his hip.

When the Heat forced the ball out of his hands it made its way to open shooters in the corner (by design of the defense), who made Miami pay for playing with fire at first, although the tactic ultimately worked to the Heat’s favor in the latter periods.

Miami shot 50.6% from the field and 15-of-38 from downtown, a welcome sight for a team that dealt with offensive inconsistency which translated to defensive weak points in their prior contests.

Strus kept the Heat alive in the second period with timely long-bombs and Vincent’s penetration led to scoring opportunities near the rim. Lowry and Butler got going at the end of the second period. The CEO of Big Face Coffee then turned on “Playoff Jimmy” mode for a few moments in the third, scoring and distributing with ease in the post while disrupting the passing lanes for transition opportunities on the other end.

The key victim of this defensive force was Simons, who really did not have a good evening:

Herro hit a pair of triples which were big towards the end of the third to keep the Blazers at bay, then Bam Adebayo joined the party in the fourth to punctuate the blowout. Martin was consistent all throughout.

Interestingly the change of the game’s favor towards Miami unfurled not long after rookie Nikola Jovic made his NBA debut. The numbers are unspectacular (2 points, 1-3 FG, +3), but the shift in dynamic seemed to light a spark under the team.

He wasn’t any worse than Dewayne Dedmon on defense (except for the truly awful foul rate) and actually provided floor-spacing on offense, as Butler had more room to operate in the lane with four capable shooters spreading the half-court. Once his conditioning catches up, perhaps he gets even more minutes.

Miami has the potential to be a deep team when Victor Oladipo and Omer Yurtseven make their return. Though the sample size is small, Jovic has an intriguing case to earn a rotation role. The odd man out will likely be Dedmon, but given the discouraging returns of his minutes this season, that might not be a bad thing.

The good vibes of Miami’s triumph in Portland will be put to test right away as they face defending champion Golden State on Thursday. If the Heat team that played Portland is the one to show up, it should make for an entertaining two and a half hours of quality hoops.