It seems like eons ago when the Heat played one of their most dramatic games of the season in Portland on Jan. 9. The Rose Garden was electric that Sunday evening, as the Heat and Trail Blazers went to overtime in a game that featured LeBron James' taunting the crowd en route to 44 points, a furious comeback and a procession of adjustments from each bench over the course of the game. For Miami, it marked the first time the team went full throttle with its small-ball attack during a crucial stretch of play. Down seven with only a couple of minutes left in regulation, Spoelstra inserted James Jones for Joel Anthony. In an instant, the floor opened up, as Jones dragged LaMarcus Aldridge to the perimeter, leaving James and Dwyane Wade with room to operate in the half court. The Trail Blazers are a disciplined but conventional squad that thrives in a structured game, and Spoelstra's tactic disrupted their flow. During the overtime period, James actually guarded Marcus Camby -- to no ill effects. Since then, small-ball has ceased to be a novelty for the Heat, but look for Spoelstra to take some risks against a team that prefers to play by the book.
What happens in a tight game?
It's the question that's been gnawing at the Heat during their current slide. The last time these two teams hooked up, the Heat were downright intimidating in overtime. They carried into that extra frame an aura that said to Portland, "You had your chance to wrap this one up in regulation. Tsk, tsk." Now the Heat are 5-13 in games decided by five points or fewer. Is this a lack of clutch-ness on the Heat's part or just random noise? Do we take James at his word that, in fact, he's getting exactly the kind of shots he wants in pivotal possessions and just not converting them, or is there something fundamentally flawed with the Heat's approach to these situations? Whatever the case, here's a fool-proof way to avoid a late-game meltdown: Don't let the game come down to a possession or two. Instead, get your work done early, particularly at home against a team coming off the second half of a back-to-back.
Move and spread against the Blazers' zone
Portland plays one of the steadier zone defenses in the league, something that gave the Heat fits through much of the teams' first meetings. They deploy it strategically and, against the Heat, it induced excessive dribbling and ill-advised jumpers. Then the Heat adapted by applying their quickness off the ball to attack the zone's soft spots. They reversed the ball, used Chris Bosh strategically as a screener and, most important, moved Wade along the baseline underneath the defense. If the Heat can get the Trail Blazers on their heels, move consistently throughout the possessions and embrace the fact that Wade is a human zonebuster, they should be successful.
Defending LaMarcus Aldridge
A lot of observers took a wait-and-see approach when Aldridge came out of the gate this season as a more willing post player. Aldridge has always had the ability to score on the left block, but seemed more comfortable as a spot-up midrange shooter. Was this uptick in his productivity a temporary commitment to working down low, or a true evolution of his game? The growing body of evidence suggests that Aldridge the post player is here to stay. Some tentativeness might still linger some nights against bigger defenders, and the hook still needs work, but Aldridge can now do something he wasn't capable of doing 12 months ago -- anchoring Portland's offense even without a devastating perimeter slasher. His footwork -- particularly his spin move -- has flourished and he's putting the ball on the floor with a specific plan to attack. On Tuesday night, Bosh will need to do a better job anticipating the cross-screen for Aldridge that frees him up for a deep catch on that left block, and use his forearm to push Aldridge off his spot.
Protect the ball
The Heat's turnover rate sits about at the league average, but they've been above that in each of the four games during the losing streak. Wade, alone, has racked up 19 over the past four games as he has strained to make plays against active, collapsing defenses. Moving screens, getting caught in the air without a plan and air-mailed skip passes have become commonplace when the Heat need solid possessions to reverse momentum. Against a resurgent Portland defense that now features Gerald Wallace, the Heat will need to be more careful than ever. The Trail Blazers rank second in the NBA in opponent turnover rate. They have a way of inducing opponents into doing stupid stuff late in the shot clock.