Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 118-108 win over the Portland Trail Blazers (32-21) on Tuesday at Moda Center.
1. As soon as this Heat (25-27) team is counted out, Tuesday happens.
It’s been a season full of unexpected wins and losses. It’s been so unpredictable that even coach Erik Spoelstra is left wondering which team he’s going to get entering games.
Tuesday was one of those twists that not many saw coming, as Miami bounced back from a 0-3 homestand with an impressive win over Portland to begin its challenging five-game West Coast trip.
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It was impressive because the Trail Blazers entered with the Western Conference’s fourth-best overall record at 32-20 and a 22-7 home record. It was impressive because Portland used a fourth-quarter run to cut Miami’s 15-point lead to one with 5:15 to play, and the Heat responded with a 14-5 run to hold on for the victory.
“This game meant a lot to us,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who finished with with 22 points, nine rebounds and three assists. “We really needed this game. We wanted to win it after dropping three in a row at home, and you could tell.”
The Heat’s usually inefficient offense was efficient, scoring 118 on 54.2 percent shooting and committing just 12 turnovers. Miami had not finished with 12 or fewer turnovers since a Jan. 10 victory over the Celtics.
With the win, the Heat swept its season series against the Trail Blazers, 2-0. Miami is 6-4 this season against the eight West teams currently occupying playoff spots. Considering the Heat just lost to the Bulls at home by 16 points and is 0-3 against the rebuilding Hawks, that record against the West’s best is surprising.
But it’s also an indicative record, one that shows just how unpredictable Miami is. This week-long stretch that included a 0-3 homestand and a road win over the Trail Blazers is a microcosm of this Heat team.
“It was one of our better responses to how we’ve been playing,” Spoelstra said of the win. “We probably are very difficult to prepare for — you don’t know which team you’re going to get, and neither does the head coach.”
2. Hassan Whiteside is playing his best basketball of the season and his teammates and coach are noticing.
The Heat’s starting center finished Tuesday’s win with 28 points (one off his season-high) on 11-of-12 shooting, 11 rebounds, four steals and two blocks. But maybe the most important number of the night was his plus-minus of plus-16.
“It was absolutely winning basketball on both ends of the court, anchored our defense,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside. “He was a big presence in the paint with his rolling, his offensive rebounding, being available. Finding the energy to get to the open spot where the ball could find him. And the bottom line was it was a plus-, and he was a major factor that hopefully we can continue to build on.”
As expected, Whiteside scored most of his points near the basket. Nine of his 11 made baskets came from in the paint, but he was also 2 of 2 on jumpers.
Whiteside also made 6 of 7 free throws, which is one of his best performances from the foul line this season. Among players who have attempted at least 50 free throws this season, he owns the league’s worst free-throw percentage at 43.2.
“I got back to the routine and all I could remember was Justise [Winslow] saying, ‘Hold your follow through,’” Whiteside said of his strong night at the foul line. “I think the most frustrating thing for me was I could go in the gym and make 88, 85 out of 100 and then I come out here and I’m shooting it totally different. I just had to make sure I honed my follow through, so I went back to my old routine and I trusted it.”
Whiteside has averaged 19.7 points on 74.3 percent shooting, 13.3 rebounds, 2 steals and 1.3 blocks during the Heat’s past three games.
“Everything. I really did. I liked everything,” James Johnson said when asked what he liked about Whiteside’s game against Portland. “He’s sprinting the floor, he’s patient, he’s setting great screens right now and just really being happy with other people’s success. For him to make that change, which he can, is going to make him top three or four best centers in the league.”
Wade said he loved how Whiteside used his voice against the Trail Blazers.
“We heard his voice tonight, talking to us on both ends of the floor, talking to us in huddles,” Wade said. “He was engaged. I don’t even know what his numbers were, but I just know his presence was known. When he plays that way and he’s active, we’re a good team.”
3. More than 50 games into the season, the Heat is still searching for a starting lineup it can rely on consistently. Miami used its 19th different starting lineup of the season Tuesday, replacing James Johnson with Kelly Olynyk.
“We needed change,” James Johnson said. “Coach Spo did his job in the aspect of changing things up, shaking things up. Like we said in the beginning, our minutes are not gifted and we have to work for it. I was in a slump and he thought Kelly belonged better in that first unit, and I have to agree.”
The Heat added Olynyk to a starting lineup that already included Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside. This five-man combination had not played much entering Tuesday, as it had been outscored by six points in just eight minutes together this season.
But the lineup was effective in Portland, outscoring the Blazers by 10 points in 11 minutes.
“Look, we’ve had to make a few changes with the starting lineup,” Spoelstra said. “That’s just the way it’s been going, and really felt down deep, with some reflection that there had to just be a different pivot with the starting group. We went with it, with KO. I think he complemented that group well.”
Whiteside and Olynyk is an interesting frontcourt paring the Heat has used a good amount this season. Including Tuesday, the Heat has outscored opponents by 10 points in the 242 minutes the 7-footers have played together this season.
4. With James Johnson taken out of the Heat’s starting lineup, he thrived in a bench role against the Trail Blazers. Johnson finished with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, six rebounds, three assists, two steals and three blocks in 27 minutes.
“JJ just came alive,” Spoelstra said. “That’s the James Johnson that we’ve all come to love, really impactful on both ends. Defensively, he was all over the place. And then offensively helping that second unit get into some offense and made some plays.”
It’s one of Johnson’s best all-around stat lines of the season, as he’s struggled to find an offensive rhythm all year while working his way back from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. Johnson had started in 33 of the Heat’s previous 34 games, but playing as part of a group that required him to defer to Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson wasn’t easy to adjust to.
“That first unit got young killers, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson that are really having great years and you can’t take nothing away from that,” Johnson said. “As long as they’re being aggressive, making the right reads, making the right play, you got to lay in the weeds a little bit and do what’s needed for the team like defense, rebound and things like that. And I didn’t get it at first. I come back from injury and I’m expecting it all to just be there for me. Not the case, it never happened for me. So I had to step up and accept the challenge.”
Johnson, who is in the second season of a four-year, $60 million contract, looked more aggressive playing as part of a bench unit with Wade, Bam Adebayo and Dion Waiters.
A move to the bench could end up helping Johnson. The 31-year-old’s most consistent stretch in a Heat uniform did come while he was being used in a bench role during the 2016-17 season. He averaged 12.5 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1 steal and 1.2 blocks in 71 games as a reserve that year.
5. It’s an unexplainable trend, but the Heat continues to be much better on the road than at home.
Miami improved to 14-11 on the road this season with its victory over Portland. Pair that with the Heat’s underwhelming 11-16 mark at AmericanAirlines Arena, and you have an overall record of 25-27.
In fact, the Heat is the only team in the NBA with a winning road record that also owns a losing overall record.
“I can’t,” Wade said when asked to explain this unusual trend. “But since we’re on the road for the next five, I’m not even going to try to. I don’t know what it is. I wish I could take myself out of it and try to analyze it, but I can’t. All I can do is try to continue to help these young guys believe in themselves. It’s hard to play this way constantly, consistently. We don’t have guys that just walk in the gym and get you 30. We got to work for it.”
To put this all into perspective, Miami has a better road record than top teams like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Portland and Houston. It’s been that type of weird season for the Heat.