Game 24 Recap: Blazers 99, Cavaliers 104

Well, if you're going to lose that's not a horrible way to lose.  The Blazers played an inspired first half in this one.  Gone was the listless play we've become semi-accustomed to lately.  This team had more list than Santa.  One of the things I sometimes forget is that the current incarnation of the Blazers has a little "Big Time" in it.  They seemed to know they were on national TV.  They knew who they were playing.  They played with energy from the tip, taking a lead on the shocked Cavaliers (perhaps feeling a little entitlement to a home win themselves) and protecting it through the first half.

How did the Blazers do it?  The supporting cast had a fantastic half.  Martell Webster started the game on fire, hitting everything he threw up.  It's not like he was taking it one-on-one.  The Blazers attacked with Roy early, he drew attention, Martell and LaMarcus were the beneficiaries.  In fact nobody but those three scored in the first quarter.  When the stars didn't have a shot, Martell stepped up.  But the Blazers also threw a few more screens in the offense, with both Roy and Webster curling off of them and hitting briefly-open jumpers as a result.

As the second quarter and the second unit (such as it is) rolled around we saw a ton of off-ball movement.  The four players without the rock made it easy for the dribbler to find an outlet.  Unsurprisingly the two players who benefitted the most were the two players who know how to function in that kind of offense:  Juwan Howard and Andre Miller.  Both of those guys have a sense of spacing that their younger counterparts lack.  Howard all but killed the Cavaliers all by himself at the start of the second quarter doing nothing but raining down open mid-range jumpers.  Miller ramped it up at the end of the second quarter, hitting all kinds of shots including a couple threes.  Except for one Roy jumper, one Cunningham jumper, and a couple of Bayless free throws nobody but the geezer twins scored in that second period.

As you can imagine, Cleveland was a little flummoxed.  Worse, the Blazers' energy on offense evoked similar play on defense.  Joel Przybilla keyed the early momentum with a couple of MONSTER blocks.  He was way into this game.  Cleveland helped by steadfastly refusing to utilize LeBron James.  He destroyed the Blazers every time he touched the ball but he was getting fewer touches than a broke guy at Déjà Vu.  It was as if Cleveland had a fully gassed and insured Ferrari in the garage but elected to take the old Taurus instead.  Add in that the Blazers weren't turning the ball over much and weren't allowing the Cavs offensive rebounds and you can see why Portland took a 9-point lead into the third quarter.  They had outscored Cleveland 31-19 in that second period.  Things were looking good.

Except you didn't need Paul Harvey to know what the rest of the story would be.

The Cavaliers announced their presence in the second half by throwing on a full-court press.  The intention wasn't so much to stop Portland as rattle them.  Perhaps it was also designed to light a fire under their own players.  It worked on both counts.  Wherever Portland threw the ball a defender seemed to beat it there.  Where the Blazers had been playing free and easy, maybe even with a spritely tempo, in the first half now shots started coming later and later in the clock.  The same jumpers that were golden early started missing late.

When LeBron hit a three-pointer on Cleveland's first offensive possession, approximately 37 seconds into the half, it was clear that Elvis had arrived at the clam bake.  He proceeded to score 9 points in 3 minutes, hitting jumpers over shorter guys.  The Blazers threw a zone which worked for a possession or so.  Then it was the old "put out the fire" drill which saw Portland defenders running at him from everywhere.  All of a sudden here come Anderson Varejao and Shaquille O'Neal. 

Pause for interlude. 

Shaq was huge in this game.  Like around four bills huge.  Seriously, you can now see the fat roll underneath the armpits of his jersey.  The Cavs wear an "XL" patch on their uniforms.  In his case it's missing about six "X's".  I'm thinking the plan is to improve his free throw shooting by eventually being able to roll the ball down his stomach and into the hoop.  Some guys become broadcasters after their career is done.  I guess he's angling to be a blogger. 

Now back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

Varejao and Shaq took advantage of Portland's inability to contain LeBron by scoring repeatedly at the cup.  Portland eventually tried a smaller, quicker lineup both to protect Przybilla from foul trouble and to move men over to LBJ in a more timely fashion.  That made it worse.  Przybilla eventually put an end to the Shaq run with a classic heel move:  poking him in the eye.  Shaq went to the locker room and never came back.  Unfortunately the same could not be said of Varejao, who proceeded to kill us with his energy on both ends.  He bottled up LaMarcus Aldridge, rebounded all over the place, created turnovers, finished easy plays...he basically gave the Cavs all of the opportunity points they had lacked in the first half.

Meanwhile the Blazers' offense was in confusion.  As jumpers missed we became more Roy-centric which had the dual effect of creating points and telegraphing to the Cavaliers where their defense should concentrate and exactly when the ball was coming up.  It's not like Roy was hogging it.  His teammates couldn't finish what they started early in the game.  Martell Webster made like one of those drag racers starting with a huge boom but then blowing out his engine and coasting down the track.  Steve Blake never hit anything in this game.  LaMarcus got Varejaoed.  The only guy who was any help was Andre Miller and that was at the cost of his offense running the same way Roy's did.  It wasn't quite enough.  Cleveland played sharper.  The Blazers turned it over more and got fewer offensive rebounds in the second half.  Oh...and LeBron was still cooking.

Portland made it really close, cutting it to 4 with 13 seconds left on a LaMarcus Aldridge three and then scoring again 1 second later off of a Roy steal of the inbounds pass.  But Cleveland hit their free throws and Roy couldn't hit the contested, off-balance three that would have kept hope alive.  It was as good of a performance as you could have expected but it wasn't good enough for the miracle win.

Here's hoping the Blazers build on tonight.  They showed themselves and their opponent that they can be dangerous when they play right.  The early offense was something to behold...everything you'd hoped for out of a perimeter game.  The total lack of paint points rendered it unsustainable but if the Blazers can pair that movement and unselfishness with even a marginal inside presence they're going to be just fine.  And by just fine I mean great.  In the meantime while they're waiting for the post presence and more people who can actually hit outside shots to heal they should continue to work that hard.  Good things will happen.

Click through for Individual Observations, the Boxscore, Links, Jersey Contest Results, and Final Thoughts.

Individual Observations

Brandon Roy had 23 points but never got steady offensive production until he blitzed the fourth quarter.  Even then his run was short-lived.  Cleveland figured out what the plan was and that made life too difficult.  He was no better than anyone else on the team when matched up against LeBron James.  In fact the three-guard lineup in the second half was a defensive disaster, especially when Przybilla wasn't in with them.  But he looked more active on defense than he has in some outings.  He had 6 assists as well.

LaMarcus Aldridge had three-quarters of a great offensive game tonight.  He couldn't get anything going in the fourth.  They just shut him down whenever he tried, which in any case probably wasn't often enough as the offense became guard-dominated.  He drew 5 free throws and hit them all, which is good.  He had 2 rebounds on the night...this on a night when he was one of two guys above 6'9" who saw significant minutes.  That's not so good.

Andre Miller played tough out there on offense.  He drove, dished, and hit his shots.  I have a vague impression that he looks more confident against Eastern Conference teams but that's just an impression.  He sure knew how to bake Cleveland's cookies.  8-13 shooting, 20 points, 6 rebounds.  He had only 3 assists, taking a more shooting-guard-ish approach to the evening.

Steve Blake had 8 assists.  Unfortunately that was about the only obvious good thing that came out of his night.  He had 4 turnovers.  Although he put himself in decent position many times he also got burned for being too slow or too short on defense.  He also missed all 4 shots he took, including 3 three-point attempts.  First of all, with the roster the way it is we can't afford to have a guy playing 36 minutes and only attempting 4 shots unless that guy's name starts with "P" and ends with "rzybilla".  Discretion is good but you have to be a threat.  Second of all...you goose-egged the evening.  I hate to presume too much but have a handy piece of advice for both Blake and Webster.  If the three-pointer isn't falling your choices are not limited to keep bricking or stop shooting altogether.  Specifically there are shots available from 2-4 feet further in which are more comfortable.  Obviously you can't step in if defenders are closing out on you but in many cases they're leaving you all alone.  Take an easier shot, get it to fall, then try the hard stuff.

Speaking of Martell, 13 points in the first quarter, 0 for the rest of the game.  4 rebounds and 4 fouls otherwise.  Obviously defending LeBron can be a discouraging experience.  But you've got to keep involved and you've got to work for better shots instead of relying on the ones that the defense gives you most easily.  On fire or cold as a witch's bras-trap won't do it.

Joel Przybilla...you made this game for us.  11 rebounds, 3 blocks, including a SPECTACULAR rejection of a Shaq alley-oop dunk.  The guy had 2 assists when the offense was flowing freely too.  He set the tone.

Hey Juwan...15 points in 16 minutes?  Who are you, Jerryd Bayless?  I guess this is the one situation where you're glad that the old-guy power forward you got also used to score with some proficiency instead of just rebounding and defending.  With half the roster blown away you need the points.

Hey Jerryd...8 minutes?  Who are you, Juwan Howard?  No, seriously, I thought Jerryd looked pretty good out there tonight.  He made a couple of nice assists and stayed turnover-free.  More importantly the Blazers intentionally called the last play of the first half for him, giving him the ball to finish the period.  He penetrated even when everybody knew that would be coming.  He drew two foul shots and converted them.  The fact that they set the play for him is a sign of respect.  Of course more than 8 minutes would also be a sign of respect.  I am not huge on bandwagons as I think we tend to jump the gun and/or not see some subtle things that keep our favorite guys from playing as much as we think they should.  However in this case I tend to agree with my colleague Ben.  I'm seeing Jerryd hit the few jumpers he takes.  I'm seeing him drive with effect.  I'm seeing him in the nascent stages of passing the ball and getting the offense.  I do understand his effectiveness will be greatest with certain combinations.  I understand that those combinations probably won't include Roy or Miller--let alone both--and that you have to give the nod to Brandon and Andre both over Jerryd right now.  (In other words it's not just a matter of subbing in Jerryd in Blake's spot.)  However no matter what the combinations may be I think you have to find the guy some more playing time, particularly if the other team has no choice but to send a weaker defender against him.  Maybe not 30 minutes.  Maybe he doesn't even move up in the rotation officially.  But if Blake's not hitting his shots anyway, if Miller or Roy can handle the passing, and if Jerryd can do a few other things that Steve can't you have to sneak him in there for a few more minutes.

Final Thoughts

Pretty much said it all above, but I'll reiterate that I appreciated the effort.  If the Blazers played every game this way, even with the evening not being perfect, there wouldn't be much cause to complain.

Boxscore

Check out what Cavs fans think at FeartheSword.

See how you did in tonight's Jersey Contest here.  (We had some good scores!)  Enter tomorrow's form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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