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Game of the Night - Heat at Trail Blazers, 10:35 ET, ESPN
At this time last season, the Heat were in the midst of fighting back from an awful 11-30 start, entering March 12 on a 21-4 run as they visited Indiana. They lost, which ended up costing them a playoff bid.
That’s a little dramatic, but true. The Heat ended up missing the playoffs on a tie-breaker with the Bulls after finishing one game behind the Pacers. They got all the way back to 41-41 and fell painfully short of testing themselves in the postseason, leading Dion Waiters to write that the rest of the East was lucky he had time to put pen to paper in the Players’ Tribune.
Waiters is sidelined, which gives the ’17-’18 Heat a much different feel than they had last season, when they went from doormat to unlikely second-half power behind a collective approach to compensate for no All-Stars. Waiters was the face of the unlikely run, playing at a level that had eluded him in the pros. With Dwyane Wade gone and Chris Bosh shelved, last season was about hitting the reset button.
This season, there are expectations.
As the Heat take the court in Portland to open a three-game road trip and a stretch where they’ll play five of seven outside of south Florida, they’ll be looking to avoid a slide that would cost them a chance at homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference. Miami has lost seven straight road games but hasn’t played poorly. The team is 4-0-1 against the spread over their last five setbacks and has begun to hit its stride.
Since trading for Wade, the Heat is 7-5 straight up but 9-1-2 against the number, which is indicative of trending in a positive direction.
Following this stretch, Miami gets to finish the season with six of eight games at home, so this week is critical to staying afloat. Portland has the NBA’s longest winning streak, so the Heat will get arguably their toughest remaining regular-season road test right out of the gate.
They’ll be shorthanded in chasing an upset, missing center Hassan Whiteside due to hip pain that kept him out of Saturday’s win over Washington. Wade, nursing a hamstring strain, will sit the first part of the trip out in the hopes that he’ll be able to play later in the week with the Kings and Lakers on tap.
The Heat have a better record and more breathing room in their pursuit of the playoffs than they did last season, coming into the week seventh in the Eastern Conference, a half-game up on Milwaukee and only one game behind emerging rival Philadelphia. The Heat have defeated the 76ers in each of the last two weeks and are in a pack separating the No. 3 and No. 8 seeds by 3.5 games. Detroit and Charlotte still have postseason aspirations but have little room for error since they’re over five games behind with 15 to go.
Barring a complete collapse, Miami will be in the playoff mix. It reacquired Wade to play in a wing rotation utilizing Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Justise Winslow, so they’ll be fine with Waiters out the rest of the way following ankle surgery. Kelly Olynyk has been an upgrade from Josh McRoberts and rookie Bam Adebayo has had an impact off the bench, so the Heat are deeper, but head coach Erik Spoelstra seemed to be getting more consistency out of last season’s team by this point in the season than he has this year.
In fairness, there have been injuries to contend with and Wade was just brought back into the mix, dropped into the equation to create a fairly unique situation. Where else would you see a player being trusted in crunch time immediately upon arrival? With everyone in the crowd already wearing your jersey?
We’ll see who steps up with Wade and Whiteside out, but the expectation here is that it will be Goran Dragic and Richardson who emerge most responsible for success or failure on this trip. Winslow is the x-factor, no longer on the injury report and in the midst of the best run of an inconsistent, injury-riddled third season. Since Feb. 24, he’s helped Miami go 6-2 and has been a tremendous asset at both ends, averaging 11.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and shooting 52.9 percent.
Winslow has made 12 of his last 22 3-pointers, which means opposing wings can’t play off him like the scouting report tells them to. If that continues, it could be a game-changer.
The Trail Blazers are hoping that a win over the Warriors can further fuel a growing confidence that this team is finally ready to emerge in the West, relatively speaking. While Golden State and Houston are still top dogs, Portland’s run since Valentine’s Day has put them in position to win the Northwest and make this a memorable season. They’ve certainly made backers happy, cashing in 10 of their last 12. At home in the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers have won and covered five straight to extend a 14-1 SU run that has seen them cover 12 times.
Damian Lillard is averaging over 31 points and six assists since February began, shooting 46.7 from 3-point range. Despite his exploits, improved defense has been the key to this run of success for Portland, which has held five of nine opponents to 100 or fewer points during its current win streak. The under has connected in six of its last eight.
Portland won the lone regular-season meeting between these teams 102-95 on Dec. 13, overcoming Lillard shooting just 1-for-6 from 3-point range thanks to a 28-point outburst from C.J. McCollum. Whiteside missed that game too, while Waiters shot 6-for-18. The Blazers have won four straight in the series and haven’t lost to the Heat at home since 2013.
James Harden is expected to return at home against San Antonio after missing last night's win in Dallas as Houston wrapped up a stretch of road games in seven of eight. After their 17-game winning streak was snapped in Toronto, Houston got out to an early lead against the Mavs, lost it entirely and then dominated the second half thanks to a flurry of 3-pointers that allowed them to coast down the stretch.
San Antonio has ruled out LaMarcus Aldridge due to knee soreness and won't have Kawhi Leonard back in the mix until later in the week at the earliest. Manu Ginobili is getting a rest night, so the Spurs will be short-handed against their Southwest Division rival.
The Thunder looked sharp in taking down San Antonio on Saturday night, but saw Steven Adams suffer an ankle sprain in the third quarter and may not have him available against the Kings. With Terrance Ferguson out with a concussion, OKC's depth will be tested against Sacramento. Jerami Grant was an x-factor in the win over the Spurs and should again see an enhanced role. The Kings have center Willie Cauley-Stein back in the mix, but talented young forward Skal Labissiere is questionable with a hip injury.
Memphis is likely to have Marc Gasol back against the visiting Bucks after resting him this weekend, but guards Tyreke Evans, Andrew Harrison and Mario Chalmers remain sidelined. Forward Jarell Martin is questionable with a foot issue.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA
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