PORTLAND --- After one year out, the Heat is back in a familiar spot: the NBA playoffs.
Chicago's loss to Detroit on Saturday night clinched a playoff berth for the Heat, Miami's 19th playoff appearance in 29 seasons overall and 17th in 21 seasons under the stewardship of Pat Riley.
The Heat entered the night third in the East but just one half game ahead of No. 6 Boston. So seeding will need to sort itself out in the next 11 days.
Miami's playoff appearance also assures that its first round pick will go to Philadelphia to complete a 2010 sign and trade with Cleveland when Miami acquired LeBron James. The pick was top 10 protected again this year but would not have been next year. The Heat has no second-round pick either.
Meanwhile, the Heat and the Portland Trail Blazers, who met here at Moda Center late tonight, share a common and unusual bond that should be an immense source of pride for each.
Both organizations have overcome the loss of All-Star players in their prime to remain relevant and playoff-worthy.
In fact, Miami and Portland are this decade’s models for that.
“A lot of times, when a player leaves, they go through an organizational change, a GM change, the front office, executives change. It takes a while to get over the hump,” said Heat center Amar’e Stoudemire, who watched the Suns plunge in the standings after he left for the Knicks in 2010.
“But teams who have stayed consistent with their front office have always been able to bounce back. [The Heat and Portland] are Class A organizations who… know what it takes to get back to that level.”
After an initial post-LeBron decline to 37-45 last season due largely to injuries and illness, the Heat entered Saturday at 44-31.
Despite losing second-team All-NBA forward LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs last July, the Trail Blazers enter the season’s final week-and-half at No. 6 in the Western Conference, at 40-36 and one game behind No. 5 Memphis, and with better records than several teams picked by pundits to finish ahead of them, including Houston, Dallas and New Orleans.
So just how difficult is it to lose a free agent coming off an All-Star season and stay relevant? Consider:
• After James fled to the Heat in 2010, the Cavaliers plummeted from 61 wins to 97-215 over the next four seasons.
• After Chris Bosh signed with the Heat in 2010, Toronto went from a 40-win team to 79-151 over the next three.
• Since Stoudemire left for to the Knicks in 2010, the Suns went from 54-28 (and an appearance in the Western Conference Finals) to not making the playoffs any of the six years since.
• In the wake of losing an All-Star but albeit declining Steve Nash to the Lakers in 2012, the Suns went from a .500 team to 25-57 the next.
• After Dwight Howard left Los Angeles to sign with Houston in 2013, the Lakers went from 45-37 to 27-55 and 21-61 the next two seasons.
So how have the Heat and Blazers done it? With smart personnel decisions by their respected top executives (Riley/Andy Elisburg and Portland general manager Neil Olshey), strong coaching (from Erik Spoelstra and Terry Stotts), and an ideal mix of veterans and youth.
More than anything, it helped that other All-Star caliber players remained after James and Aldridge left: Dwyane Wade and Bosh with the Heat, Damian Lillard with Portland.
Luol Deng and Goran Dragic were significant Heat additions, too, of course. And Portland made savvy pickups in Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson, among others.
It also helped that both franchises infused young talent: Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson with the Heat; and in Portland’s case, 2013 draft picks CJ McCollum and Alan Crabbe (the latter acquired from Cleveland during the draft), plus center Mason Plumlee (acquired on draft night last June from Brooklyn).
“It starts up top,” Udonis Haslem said. "The guys up top, since I’ve been here, Coach Riley, Mr. Arison and the whole organization make it clear we want to win now. We’re not about three years, four years. They don’t waste any time. If we lose a big part of our team, those guys get to work. As players, if it’s someone we know, we reach out and do our part as well [to lure free agents].”
Among teams that have lost “defending” first-, second- or third-team All-NBA players in free agency in the past decade, the one other --- besides the Heat and Portland –-- that rebounded quickly was Detroit, which lost Ben Wallace to Chicago in 2006 but returned to the Eastern Finals the next year.
But this is perhaps most impressive: If the Heat wins 49 games, it will have won 86 in its first two years since James left --- just 11 wins fewer that the Cavaliers produced in four years after LeBron joined the Heat.
“Miami, I think, is going to be a good team,” Kings coach George Karl said after the Heat's 112-106 win Friday night. “That’s a top-eight team, I think, in the NBA. I hadn’t seen them since the beginning of the year, but they do a lot of good stuff.”
The Heat said Dwyane Wade will be out Saturday because of back and neck soreness sustained in a fall against the Lakers on Wednesday. It's the second game in a row that Wade will miss and the eight overall this season. His status for Tuesday's game against Detroit is uncertain.
• The Heat was originally under the impression that it would clinch a playoff berth tonight with a win against Portland or a Bulls loss to Detroit. But the NBA informed the Heat this afternoon that only a Bulls loss would clinch a postseason berth for Miami today.
Even though he scored 30 points, Sun Sports couldn’t air some of Gerald Green’s postgame comments because of the use of an expletive that rhymes with, um, trucker.
“I read all those comments, mother [expletive] be talking about me,” he said of unspecified media members. “I just use that [expletive] as motivation, man. Like the last two months, man, the media been killing me.
"So every day, I go to the gym at night, I run, I read y'all comments, and go back to the gym, read y'all comments, go right back to the gym. So I'm just motivated. My teammates motivate me. So I'm just doing whatever I can to just keep myself together."
• This, courtesy of Elias today: Green went 6-for-6 from the field and scored 15 points in the first quarter. Green entered with a .333 field-goal percentage in the first quarter of games, which was the fourth lowest among players with at least 100 attempts in the opening quarter. That's ahead of only Isaiah Canaan (.293), Kobe Bryant (.330) and Wesley Matthews (.332).
• When Luol Deng hit a huge three with 46 seconds left Friday, pushing Miami’s lead to six, it made him 10 for 16 this season on clutch threes. (The NBA defines clutch as the final five minutes of games with a margin of five points or fewer.) That’s a remarkable 62.5 percent.
Among players who have attempted at least 10 clutch threes this season, only Philadelphia’s Hollis Thompson (8 for 11, 72.7 percent) has a higher accuracy rate.
Some postscripts and comments from Mark Richt after today’s closed UM scrimmage, courtesy of Canesport and UM:
• On Brad Kaaya, who went 12 of 21 for 186 yards and four touchdowns: “Super accurate. There may have been a dropped ball here or there. His accuracy grade will be higher than his percentage, meaning I’ll grade [on] did he hit his target. If he’s 0-for-10, but he hit his target, [and] they dropped 10 in a row, to me his grade is 100 percent accuracy….
“I’m thankful Brad is smarter than me; there was probably two or three times that I called the wrong formation and I’ve been running the system for, like, a while. And he’s real polite, like `Hey coach, don’t you mean this?’ `Oh yeah, Brad.’ Or `Don’t you mean this protection?’ `Oh, yeah, that’s right.’ Maybe two or three times he helped me out. But that’s the first time I’ve called plays in about 10 years.”
• The backup QB job remains open. Evan Shirreffs was four-for-seven for 33 yards. Incumbent Malik Rosier was 3 of 7 for 66 and two interceptions.
Of Rosier’s two picks, “One was thrown right in the belly; you can’t do that,” Richt said. “He made a flat-out bad decision. It was just a bad decision all-around.
“Malik, like everybody, they have to understand we can’t turn a bad situation into a catastrophe. Sometimes a bad thing happens, protection breaks down or guys get covered or whatever. Don’t turn that bad situation into something awful - throw it away, take a sack if you have to. … I want every drive to end with a kick, either a punt or an extra point or a field goal.”
• Defensive tackle Gerald Willis, the former Gator, had two sacks. “Willis is playing well, he’s had a good spring,” Richt said.
Kendrick Norton and Jermaine Grace also had sacks. Grace led Miami in tackles with five and scooped up a fumble that he returned for a touchdown.
• Juwon Young, Robert Knowles and Terrance Henley had interceptions.
• Running back stats. Gus Edwards 7-32 yards… Joe Yearby 4-28 yards… Mark Walton 6-30 yards… Trayone Gray 9-47 yards.
• How did the offensive line do against the defensive line? “I thought it was probably pretty close to being even,” Richt said. “We protected pretty good. Brad threw it 21 times, would have got sacked two or three, so decent. And it’s not just line play, it’s backs blocking. Sometimes the QB just doesn’t get rid of the ball fast enough, in my opinion. Usually the sacks are on the quarterback in my opinion. Pretty good match today….
“Two days ago the defense splattered the offense, really. The practice before that the offense - `hey, here they go. The line’s starting to block, getting long runs.’ Then the very next practice the defense just took control of it.”
• Miami is still committing too many penalties. “We were still penalized too much on both sides of the ball,” Richt said. “You just can’t win like that…. It’s early. We’ll discipline for that. The other thing is just having officials here every day. We have ACC officials, so that’s quality people giving their time for us, helping us learn what’s right. … Way too many [penalties].”
• Stacy Coley caught four passes for 94 yards, including a long TD. But when asked if receivers are showing more speed, a concern of Richt’s, he said: “Not really. We still need speed. We have some speed. I can promise you we need more speed.”
Twitter: @flasportsbuzz... Check back tonight before and after Heat-Blazers here in the Pacific Northwest.