The new-look Miami Heat couldn't put an end to the Portland Trail Blazers' gradual turnaround.
Portland defeated Miami 115-109 on Sunday at Moda Center, improving to 6-2 in its last eight games. Damian Lillard spearheaded the latest effort for a team that is still just 25-29 and trying to overcome its slow start from outside the playoff picture after reaching last season's Western Conference Finals.
As for the Heat, they have lost three in a row but remain an impressive 34-18 on the campaign. They were without Jimmy Butler in Sunday's contest because of a shoulder injury but at least saw Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder in action for the first time since they acquired them via trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.
Notable Player Stats
- POR G Damian Lillard: 33 points, eight assists, four rebounds and six made three-pointers
- POR G Gary Trent Jr.: 22 points, four rebounds, four steals and five made three-pointers
- POR F Trevor Ariza: 21 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals
- POR C Hassan Whiteside: 11 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks
- MIA G Goran Dragic: 27 points, seven assists, four rebounds and five made three-pointers
- MIA F Jae Crowder: 18 points, 11 rebounds and five made three-pointers
- MIA G Duncan Robinson: 19 points, six rebounds and six made three-pointers
Damian Lillard Leads Way for Balanced Trail Blazers Again
If Portland had a better record, Lillard would be in the middle of a serious MVP run.
The sharpshooting guard averaged 35 points in his previous four February games after he posted 34.1 points per night in January. He has essentially been unguardable with the ability to pull up from seemingly anywhere or blow past defenders with an explosive first step to either finish at the rim or set up teammates.
The additional attention he drew Sunday night helped set up open looks for Trevor Ariza (19 first-half points), as well as Gary Trent Jr., CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony as the game continued.
Yet when it was winning time, the Trail Blazers knew just where to turn.
Lillard went into takeover mode in the third quarter with 14 points, three of which came on one of his patented deep three-pointers as the home team extended a three-point halftime lead to double digits. He was then a stabilizing force in the fourth quarter as Portland held off Miami's comeback attempts, and he continued to find Trent for critical three-pointers.
Six Trail Blazers finished in double figures, but there was no doubt who the primary playmaker was during Sunday's win.
New-Look Heat Are Put on Hold Without Butler
Miami revamped its wing rotation when it acquired Iguodala, Crowder and Solomon Hill from the Grizzlies, and thoughts immediately turned to defense.
After all, Butler is a four-time All-Defensive selection, while Iguodala is a two-time All-Defensive selection who won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP on the back of his defense against LeBron James. What's more, Crowder is a hard-nosed defender known for his effort level on that side of the ball, and Bam Adebayo can protect the rim and show off his quick feet on the perimeter.
While Iguodala and Crowder came off the bench, the former seemed to pick up where he left off with a steal almost as soon as he entered the game.
"I kind of got excited about basketball again," he said of playing in Miami, per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com. "... This is the perfect spot. I can do a lot of different things here. A lot of different things. It doesn't have to be just defense or just passing. Or just in the corners. It's going to be good. It's going to be good. I'm going to do a lot of different things."
Those things will come in time, but it was clear there is still some rust for the three-time champion to work through on his new team.
Iguodala finished with just two points, although Crowder impressed with his ability to hit from deep and made five triples. That shooting will play well when Butler returns and draws additional defensive attention, but Miami largely relied on Goran Dragic as its primary playmaker down the stretch without its All-Star creator.
They will take some time to build chemistry, but the Heat will be far more dangerous than they showed Sunday when Butler returns to play alongside the new pieces.
The Heat are at the Golden State Warriors on Monday, while the Trail Blazers are at the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.