MIAMI — It was an hour before tip-off when the Portland Trail Blazers announced that shooting guard CJ McCollum would miss Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat due to an upper respiratory infection. McCollum had been trying to fight through the illness for several days, but it became clear Sunday afternoon that he was in no condition to play.
The already depleted Blazers were in no condition to navigate yet another absence either.
Despite playing without star Jimmy Butler (back soreness), the Miami Heat (26-10) had no problem rolling past the Blazers (15-22) 122-111 Sunday night at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. With the loss, the Blazers dropped to 3-13 against teams with winning records this season. Portland has lost six of its last seven games.
“It’s tough not having him,” said Blazers guard Damian Lillard about McCollum. “But they didn’t have their best player, so it’s not really much of an excuse. We just didn’t compete hard enough to start the game and we dug a hole. It’s hard to dig out of that on another team’s floor.”
While neither McCollum or Butler took the floor Sunday, there was still an extra layer of intrigue surrounding the game as centers Hassan Whiteside and Meyers Leonard both went up against their former teams for the first time. The Blazers acquired Whiteside this offseason in a four-team deal involving Leonard and Maurice Harkless.
Whiteside’s tenure in Miami didn’t end on the highest of notes as he was criticized by fans for his lack of effort. The fans were quick to remind him of that Sunday night, booing him when his name was announced in Portland’s lineup and whenever he touched the ball during the game. Whiteside responded by recording 21 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks against his former team, notching his 27th double-double of the season.
“I’m a little disappointed with how the fans reacted, but it is what it is,” Whiteside said. “It was cheers too. It wasn’t all boos. I made playoff runs here. I put my heart here. It wasn’t all boos, so you can’t really say nothing about the fans.”
Leonard sank back-to-back three-pointers in the first quarter to help Miami coast to an early lead that they would never relinquish. He finished the game with 11 points, nine rebounds, and three assists.
Miami led by 19 points at halftime after shooting 60.5 percent from the field in the first half. The Blazers shot just 35.7 percent in the first half. Miami also recorded 19 assists in the first half while Portland tallied just seven. The Heat extended their lead to 24 points, their largest lead of the night, three minutes into the third quarter.
“We missed shots and they got the rhythm offensively and we were on our heels the whole first half,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “When that happens, you have to compete that much harder. I thought we competed harder in the second half.”
The Blazers finally woke up after Stotts called a timeout with 8:39 left in the third quarter. After the timeout, Portland proceeded to go on a 16-2 run. Second-year guard Anfernee Simons dribbled to the basket and threw down a highlight-reel dunk with 4:30 left in the third quarter to help Portland pull within 10 points of Miami.
The Blazers went on to pull within nine of the Heat in the third quarter, but it was as close as they would get. Despite putting together a much better performance in the second half, Portland wasn’t able to ever catch the Heat.
“In the first half, we just pretty much gave them whatever they wanted, not really a presence on the defensive end and they played comfortable, got good looks, they had fun and they had a lot of energy and pretty much everything went their way,” Lillard said. “The moment we stood our ground and got more aggressive, the game completely changed. I think we just dug ourselves too big a hole.”
Lillard finished with a team-leading 34 points, 12 assists and three steals, while Simons recorded 19 points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench. Gary Trent Jr., who made the third start of his career in place of McCollum, scored six points in 17 minutes.
Goran Dragic, who has historically excelled against the Blazers, led Miami with a season-high 29 points and 13 assists. He went 5 for 7 from beyond the arc in the second half to halt Portland’s rally. Seven of the eight players that featured for Miami Sunday reached double-digits in points.
“I think the hardest part for us as a team (this season) is just being consistent and being locked in to each game,” Lillard said. “I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of that.”
The Blazers will now head to Toronto to take on the Raptors on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 4 p.m. PT at Scotiabank Arena. It will be Portland’s fourth of five consecutive games on the road.