Zone Defense, Poise, All-Around Contributions Set Stage for Blazers' Thrilling Win in Cleveland

US PRESSWIRE

The Blazers set the table with effective bench play, big numbers from their big guns, and a composed demeanor despite mistakes, allowing Nicolas Batum the opportunity to hit a miracle three-pointer at the end of the second overtime of a 118-117 contest.

For the quarter-by-quarter, overtime-by-overtime look at this thrilling game, check out Timmay's Instant Recap.

The Blazers won their first game of this seven-game road trip tonight, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 118-117 as Nicolas Batum launched a treacherous three-point bomb from the right baseline which splashed through the net with but two-tenths of a second remaining, capping a roller-coaster contest. Batum's amazing shot will be all over the highlight reels. His feet weren't square, he was drifting, and he caught, turned, and shot like lightning. Still it was pure. Amazing. However you might be interested in some of the subtleties that set the table for Batum's moment, pro and con.

This game began with both teams playing like the worst defensive squads in the NBA. Dunks came so frequently the rims called time. Neither team played interior defense but the Cavaliers managed to pressure Portland's guards into frequent turnovers, allowing Cleveland a 28-21 lead after one.

Then came one of the more interesting developments of the night. Portland's bench played...well. It's not like "Portland's bench" and "well" have never been used in the same sentence this season. But before this it's always been "gone to the well too many times" or "defending like they're stuck down a well" or, "Well, we might as well give up on the season now." But lo and behold, the Luke Babbitts and Joel Freelands, Nolan Smiths and Will Bartons of the world actually scored the ball and defended well and kept the Cavaliers off the boards on a night when Cleveland was feasting on offensive rebounds. It was like everything you wanted to see in all those other games came tumbling out of the closet on this one night. Babbitt's rebounding and Freeland's rim attack were especially effective. It was excellent.

The relatively poor competition wasn't the only reason for the burst either. Cleveland started spreading the floor, primarily using the three-point shot but also using high screens. Portland Coach Terry Stotts went with mobile guys to cover, particularly at the big positions. Freeland combined with Meyers Leonard has been a disaster so far this year. In this game the combination worked because the primary defensive need was to cover ground quickly. Picking up on that theme, Stotts used his bench freely in the second half and instructed them to play copious amounts of zone. It was an easier and more familiar defense for the young big players. It was also as if the Blazers said to Cleveland, "You like to spread the floor with the three? Fine. Three's are ALL you're going to get." It was a brilliant and effective move. The Cavs hit their share of long shots but they missed frequently as well, leading to long rebounds (more like 50-50 balls than those controllable tips that Cleveland had been getting) and even the occasional Portland run-out. No matter how many threes the Cavs attempted or hit they could never shake the Blazers.

Portland rode star power as the game wound to a close. Damian Lillard had a brilliant run of unstoppable offense in the third. LaMarcus Aldridge carried the Blazers through the late fourth. Cleveland couldn't match in raw talent so they relied on second-chance points and burning Portland's point guard-center combos with screens. They managed some easy shots in the lane on Portland's tiring defenders, plus plenty of drive and dishes for open jumpers. The Blazers had a chance to win at the end of regulation and the first overtime, both times going to Damian Lillard for fairly poor results.

In the second overtime both teams returned to their starting refrain in this game, blasting the ball inside against poor defense. Tyler Zeller and Anderson Varejao worked the boards and got inside looks or fouls. But Batum and Lillard got hot on the other end, making the scoreboard see-saw. In the end Portland got the final meaningful shot, the most improbable make of the night. With all they had put into the game they deserved it. Then again, as is true of every 2OT thriller, the other team deserved it too. What matters is that every little contribution--from the most innocuous Babbitt rebound to the soaring Freeland dunk to the machine-gun devastation wreaked by Lillard to Batum's final shot--fed this win. Had one player played with an iota less energy or confidence this game would have gone Cleveland's way.

The Blazers really didn't need a double-overtime game at this point in their schedule. But since they did find themselves embroiled in one, winning was a very good idea. Sore, tired, and happy is better than sore, tired, and wondering when you'll ever catch a break.

Individual Notes

Nicolas Batum played well, but quietly, through most of this contest. His most obvious distinction was blowing two dunks in the first half. But when the game came down to critical possessions, from the fourth quarter through the OT's, he ramped it up. He was brilliant on both ends in that final overtime. He obviously wanted that last shot and was one of the few players who could have gotten it off under those circumstances. 7-15, 3-4 from distance, 22 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks.

LaMarcus Aldridge, on the other hand, remained an offensive force throughout most of this contest despite getting in early foul trouble. He went 10-21 for 21 points plus 9 rebounds. Critiques include getting out-rebounded by tougher Cavalier players (not a surprise) and missing a possible difference-making free throw with 36 seconds left in regulation and the game tied (also not a surprise, unfortunately). On the other hand Aldridge was the ultimate safety valve for Portland's offense. He calmed them down when things were going awry, hitting shots and making the game seem easier than the guards were making it.

Damian Lillard started out slow in this game and was being exploited visibly by Cleveland's guards. Not only was he having individual defensive issues, the communication between him and his bigs was non-existent. In one case Tyler Zeller set a screen so halfheartedly he would have been yelled at by any junior high coach in the country. Yet somehow Cleveland still managed to split defenders via this shrug-inducing monstrosity and score, leading to much bonking of heads on hands on my couch. However there's no substitute for Lillard scoring 10 points in 2 minutes in the third period, nor for the improbable shuriken three-pointers he was tossing at the wailing Cavs in the second half. He shot 9-17 on the night, 4-7 from distance, with 11 assists and 6 rebounds. 6 turnovers dim the effort slightly, as do the two potential game-deciding misses referenced above. I understand why Lillard has the ball in those situations. Who else in the starting lineup is confident and skilled enough in their dribble penetration to threaten? However we've only seen missed threes and horrid layup attempts from Lillard in those situations. Damian and the Blazers have to develop more options for endgame shots.

The other critique of Lillard which deserves its own paragraph is that he never, ever passes the ball on the fastbreak. Pretty soon nobody is going to run with him, or at least not seriously.

Wesley Matthews is dealing with a hand injury and spent the night trying to negotiate with the ball instead of shooting it. He shot 3-12 for 11 points. That's the prelude to saying this was a sneaky-good game for him. He garnered 10 assists with some darn fine passing. He was in the middle of plenty of successful Portland sets even if his number didn't change on the stat board. He did well defensively up until the end of the game when he appeared to tire. He'll be one of the least sung heroes of this win but he played well on a night his shot wasn't falling.

J.J. Hickson had rebounding issues and some defensive issues as well when the floor got spread. He wasn't his usual dynamo self. He did score 11 on 4-5 shooting with 5 rebounds. It was one of those nights when he seemed to be alternating between doing too much and doing too little.

Joel Freeland had another dunk tonight, played strong defense because his footspeed was valuable in this situation, and even directed traffic a little on the court. He was as confident as he's been all season. 3-4 shooting, 8 points, 2 rebounds, and a block.

Meyers Leonard also liked the spread-floor zone, though he was also often the other guy mystified in pick-and-roll defense. He had 2 points and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes. Tyler Zeller got more minutes than Leonard but also looked more ready for them. Hopefully Leonard will take that kind of challenge personally.

Luke Babbitt = Rebounds! Well, tonight at least. He missed all 4 of his threes, shooting 2-7 overall, but darned if he didn't snag 5 boards in 13 minutes and help stem the tide of Cavalier offensive rebounding.

Nolan Smith and Will Barton each had some spastic moments and some great moments in their 12 and 13 minutes of time respectively. Barton got the first call off the bench tonight when Batum got whacked in the nose. He went 3-5 including a three and some acrobatics. His defense was a bit wonky. Smith went 3-6 for 6 points and 2 assists. Both caused grey hairs in the fourth but they held it together long enough for the starters to rest. And hey, who's to argue with 13 points from backup guards?

Jared Jeffries hit a shot in 6 minutes. Ronnie Price got a DNP-CD as did Sasha Pavlovic.

Having secured this win, the monkey is off Portland's back for the moment. They only have two games remaining on the road trip and they get a travel day before each. Momentum runs both directions. Perhaps this win will wake Nicolas Batum out of his mini-slump and propel the Blazers to a successful finish to their long road journey.

And once again, folks, that's 29 points from Portland's bench tonight. That's, like, a new record...for a week.

Your boxscore for this game.

Fear The Sword would have liked that shot to miss.

Your Jersey Contest results from this game and the form for Monday.

Portland Trail Blazer tickets

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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