LeBron James is the best played in the league, and he comes to the Rose Garden on Thursday. Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (19-15) Vs. Miami Heat (23-10)

I came to this conclusion the other day: there is absolutely no better time than right now for  the Blazers first match-up with Miami Heat in the 2012-13 season. Think about it. Imagine if this game was a month ago when Portland faced Toronto in the second game of their extended December home stand.

A month ago to the day, the Blazers had eked out overtime victories over two of the three worst teams in the league on a brutal seven-game road trip, then come home and dropped the first of six-straight home games to the Seattle SuperSonics Sacramento Kings. Imagine if after all of that, a team in desperate need of a win to keep their season from spinning out of control had to face probably the best team in the league. Right now we would be talking about tanking for draft positioning for sure.

But Portland played Toronto on December 10th. They won that night, and since then they’ve won 11 games and lost only three times. In the last month (December 10th to January 10th), the Blazers have beaten the Spurs, the Knicks, and the Grizzlies, and they haven’t lost one single game at home.

And that’s why it’s a perfect time for Portland to see LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat. Not because they are on a ridiculous roll and playing pretty good basketball, and not because they have the confidence to play with and beat any team in the league, but because right now, more so than a month ago and probably more so than in a month, the Blazers can absorb a serious whipping.

The stakes could literally not be lower for the Blazers than they are Thursday night. If Portland wins, it’s the biggest win of the year (hands down). If they lose, they won’t even fall out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference since the Blazers are a game and a half ahead of Utah and the Jazz don’t play Thursday.

Can Portland beat Miami? Certainly. Anything can happen. Will they beat Miami? Probably not. The good thing is they don’t have to beat Miami, and they shouldn’t feel any pressure to beat Miami. Will the fact that there is no pressure on the Blazers Thursday help their cause? Probably can’t hurt.

Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson

Heat Starting 5: PG Mario Chalmers, SG Dwyane Wade, SF LeBron James, PF Udonis Haslem, C Chris Bosh

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves in one direction or another, let’s just put this out on the table, Portland matches up pretty well with Miami. There I said it. The Heat play without a center, as do the Blazers. Defense and rebounding are the two X-Factors for both teams. Jump shots going in are imperative to winning for both teams. Those are the major similarities, but like I said, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.

As Sean Highkin would say, the Heat have Lebron James. Basically regardless of what Portland does or how they play or how the variables in Thursday’s game break, everything can be countered with, “well, the Heat have LeBron James.”

Let’s try a few, shall we?

Damian Lillard is a two-time rookie of the month, playing out of his mind, and getting better every night, and the Heat don’t really have a point guard. Well, the Heat have LeBron James.

LaMarcus Aldridge has been steady by some accounts and the best power forward in the league by others. In Portland’s last game, he was muscled around by an exceedingly capable Nikola Vucevic and only managed to score 27 points, grab 10 rebounds, and hand out five assists. His game is hard to stop for any guy defending his position, and will be impossible to stop for Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh, or anybody Miami throws in off their bench. Well, the Heat have LeBron James.

J.J. Hickson has been attacking the basket without the ball like a man possessed. His rebound numbers are off the charts, and Miami is not a great rebounding team. Well, the Heat have LeBron James.

Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum shoot threes really really well at home. Well, the Heat have LeBron James.

OK, I’ll stop. But you get the point. LeBron is good, so good, in fact, that how he plays will determine the outcome of Thursday’s game regardless of how poorly or how well anybody else plays. Included in that anybody is his world-class teammate Dwyane Wade.

What to Watch For

  • Can Damian Lillard have another great game on TNT. The last time Portland played on TNT, they faced the San Antonio Spurs and prior to winning in Madison Square Garden, it was this team’s biggest victory of the year. That night Damian Lillard scored a season-high 29 points to add to his seven rebounds and six assists. If Dame was a local secret coming into that game (which I don’t think he really was), he was nationally known once it was over. Dame will get his second Rookie of the Month award prior to tip on Thursday. He’ll be facing the best player in the league who has said Portland’s rookie is the best in the league. And he’ll be making his second TNT appearance, this time likely with a ton of hype about him leading into it. The stage is set for a face plant, but it’s also set for another season defining performance. Triple double maybe? Talk about getting ahead of myself.
  • Will the Blazer bench be able to keep the Heat bench from going totally nuts. In Miami’s loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, Erik Spoelstra played Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Norris Cole, Mike Miller, and Joel Anthony off the bench. None played more than 20 minutes, but none played less than 10. That’s a bench. Portland’s bench we know about. If anybody on Miami’s bench scores more than 10 points on Thursday, the Heat win going away.
  • Can the home team not get rattled. A big advantage Miami has over teams further down the food chain in the NBA is that they play TNT and ESPN games a lot more often. The differences are subtle (later start time, longer timeouts, longer halftime, Craig Sager), but they can throw off a less experienced team. If the Blazers want to win on Thursday, they have to avoid getting caught up in the glamour of playing on TNT against the best team in the league.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]


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