By DWIGHT JAYNES
This was a theft of major proportions. A Miami Heist right there in front of more than 20,000 on-site witnesses and a national television audience.
The defending NBA champions, the Miami Heat, are the kind of team that's supposed to be pulling these games off. You know, tease you all night long, let you think you're going to beat them. Let you dream big... then swoop in late in the game and break your heart by confidently nailing clutch shots, playing determined defense and making all the right and proper plays late in the game. But not this time. Seriously, the Heat are not supposed to be on the wrong end of games like this.
This year's version of the Portland Trail Blazers seems, at least at this point of the season, capable of anything as it stacks improbable win on top of hard-to-believe victory. It's been an unbelievable ride so far. And Thursday night's 92-90 win in the Rose Garden was the topper.
I can't remember a night quite like it. The Heat may be known for its Big Three but it ought to be more famous for its defense. This team can really pressure and it did that to the Trail Blazers through much of the game as it jumped the Blazer pick-and-rolls and forced the ball out of Damian Lillard's hands. Portland rushed its three-point shots quite often because the Miami rotations were so quick and sure the Heat were able to contest shots that the Blazers normally can shoot with comfort. After a sound thrashing on the boards in Indiana in its last game, Miami came in promising to do a better rebounding job, which it did right up until the tail end of the game.
The one thing the Heat didn't do real well is shoot, managing just 45.5 percent. But the Blazers were much worse at 37.5 percent and just 9 for 27 on threes. But the spunky Blazers find ways to win and this time two players -- Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews -- stepped forward in the fourth quarter.
Batum practically took over the game at one point. He was a demon at both ends and really, the only player on the Portland side who seemed comfortable from the very start in the limelight and pressure this game brings. He was brilliant in a 42-minute show, getting 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block as well as helping hold Dwyane Wade to 6-for-18 shooting. Matthews was in LeBron James' chest all night long, getting into his space, forcing him out of easy shots and being a serious pest. He helped hold James to 15 points and then saved his best offense for the end of the game.
Matthews nailed two three pointers, one of them so impossible that you'd give it to him whenever he wanted it, to tie the game and then give Portland the lead.
Afterward, it was incredible to be in the Miami locker room, where there players were in stunned disbelief. They'd played well, had a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost. This is the kind of game they win, not the kind they lose. They were as crushed as you can get by one game of an 82-game regular season.
"We played well," Wade said. "They just stole it from us."
Trail Blazer fans are getting used to this kind of thing, the stuff of fairy tales. Coach Terry Stotts and his staff deserve worlds of credit, by the way. This team is playing together and playing hard more so than any recent Portland team. When I see the growth of Batum it makes me even more frustrated about the way he was treated by Nate McMillan during the previous regime. Batum wasn't even a starter as recently as last season under McMillan. And you watch him look James and Wade straight in the eye Thursday night and wonder what that coach could have been thinking.
But time to move on. And the Trail Blazers are doing just that. In a big way.