Surging Heat visit Lillard, Blazers
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Erik Spoelstra knows what it's like to win NBA championships (twice) and what it's like to miss the playoffs.
While the Miami Heat aren't in position to soon claim another NBA title, Spoelstra would like to think they're heading in the right direction.
"It's been an up-and-down season, but I really like this group we have," said the ninth-year head coach, whose Heat are 7-12 but won two in a row heading into Saturday night's matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center. "We have a lot of talented, exciting young players (with whom) we're building and developing our Heat culture.
"We knew what we were getting into at the start the season (with the loss of Dwyane Wade). The record isn't what we want it to be, but that hasn't tempered the optimism or excitement about the group moving forward."
Miami -- which is 5-4 in its last nine games after a 2-8 start -- ranks on the low end in the NBA in most offensive categories, including scoring (28th), field-goal percentage (27th), 3-point percentage (25th) and free-throw percentage (30th). The Heat are improving, though, averaging 107 points the past four games, including a 111-110 win at Utah on Thursday night.
"It has taken a little bit of time with the offense," Spoelstra told the Portland Tribune. "The guys are getting more comfortable, more confident."
Center Hassan Whiteside ranks among the top 10 in the league in rebounds (first, 15.1), blocked shots (third, 2.56) and field-goal percentage (.559, ninth) while averaging a team-high 17.7 points.
"I've really enjoyed watching Hassan embrace the responsibility of being a great player," Spoelstra said. "What he's learning now is the responsibility on all levels to impact winning. That's with a commitment every single day to attention to detail, work ethic and mental approach that the entire locker room sees."
The Trail Blazers' offense was in high gear in a 131-109 victory over Indiana Wednesday night. But it was improved effort at the defensive end the players wanted to talk about.
"When we play well defensively -- when we fly around, have active hands, get deflections -- we can get out and run," said point guard Damian Lillard, who ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring with a 28.2-point average. "It shows the kind of shots we can get and the kind of game we can play."
Portland (10-10) reached a season high in points going up against an Indiana team that came in leading the league in steals (9.6) and opponents' turnovers (16.9), was second in opponents' 3-point percentage (.328) and third in blocked shots (6.2). Against the Blazers, the Pacers had three steals, forced seven turnovers, allowed the Blazers to shoot .375 from 3-point range and blocked four shots. The seven giveaways were a season low for Portland.
"When you have a game with seven turnovers against a team like that, it shows you can in with the right mentality," Lillard told the Portland Tribune.