The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight in a classic case of playing with fire and finally getting burned. Timmay's recap is here if you care to peruse the quarter-by-quarter impressions.
The Blazers continued their recent trend of coming out of the gate slow and disjointed, falling behind 21-26 after one and 36-53 at the half. We haven't remarked much on this phenomenon because the team has always had an answer. "Hey, we won anyway!" (Miami) "Hey, we were tired off a back-to-back against a great opponent on the road!" (Golden State) "Hey, we came back, took the game to overtime, and could have gotten the win!" (Denver)
The back-to-back excuse could still hold in this game but the Cavaliers were playing their 3rd game in 4 nights, playing without starting center Anderson Varejao, and were on the road to a Portland team with greater overall talent and a better overall record. "It was a back-to-back" doesn't really wash here unless the Blazers are prepared to concede the second half of every back-to-back remaining on their schedule. If you can't beat a Varejao-free Cleveland club at home in that situation you can't beat anybody. So there better be more to it than just circumstance.
Likely the Blazers were spoiled by their success and almost-success against those fancy teams in difficult situations. Perhaps they thought they'd be able to pocket a win versus Cleveland no matter how they played early. Either way, they learned again tonight that they aren't winning on talent alone. Focus, execution, dedication, and surprising resilience have been the hallmarks of Portland victories this season. Without those qualities this team loses no matter who the opponent is.
Cleveland built that massive halftime lead by hustling more than the Blazers, by taking advantage of clumsy Portland turnovers, by frustrating Damian Lillard with the defense of the big-and-quick Alonzo Gee (to the point Lillard never really recovered), and by strategic applications of Kyrie Irving. Lillard looked pressured, like he was trying to live up to the billing of the Point Guard Battle. Irving looked relaxed and baked Lillard's biscuits every time Damian guarded him. LaMarcus Aldridge remained a spectator in the meantime, attempting only 6 shots in the first half. Had Nicolas Batum not bailed out the Blazers by hitting 2 long jumpers in the last 30 seconds of the first quarter and another plus a free throw in the last 2:15 of the second--totaling 9 points in less than 3 minutes--that halftime gap would have been 26. Even with Batum's long-range heroics the Blazers still trailed 17 after their miserable showing.
Predictably the Blazers came out strong in the third. Aldridge took the first two shots of the new half, hitting both. Wesley Matthews hit a three and then J.J. Hickson threw down the two-handed dunk of the century at the 9:59 mark of the period. It was a natural-20, double-damage, max dice, "I Am The Author of Sickness And Woe so take THAT You Stupid Cavaliers!" kind of affair. Even then the lead remained 9 and stayed that way through the quarter. Portland only closed the gap when the Cavs bench started taking stupid shots early in the fourth. Portland had it even at the 6:00 mark.
That's when the Cavaliers unleashed the beast.
Kyrie Irving left no doubt whose court this was, no matter what the halfcourt label read. When the Blazers double-teamed him he slowed down, mostly because his teammates were still missing shots. But every time he was single-covered he scored...and scored...and scored. Jumper...ring it up. Layup...ring it up. He saved his worst abuse for Lillard, whom he twisted like a mall-shop pretzel en route to 10 points in the final 6 minutes of the game. The Blazers hit shots too and actually led 86-85 with 2:00 remaining, but how many critical minute shots are going to fall for the Blazers this season, especially since you know they're not scoring them inside? Lady Luck and the Archduke of Probability probably already think they've hit enough. Portland didn't get bad looks. (Though Aldridge may disagree, as he only got 2 solid touches in the final 5:00 of this game) The shots just didn't fall.
And really, the Blazers should be depending on those shots in this situation. Irving's mad-mad-mad shooting spree was only the last cause for defeat. This game was lost in those first two quarters when the Blazers played like their shoelaces were knotted together. Sub-40% shooting against the team with the worst field goal percentage defense in the league? Really? (Portland shot 39% tonight. The Cavaliers normally allow 47%.) 26 points in the paint scored against a team that gives up 42 a night and is missing their center to boot? Tyler Zeller plays 40 minutes and isn't punished? 19 turnovers? 7 bench points in a combined 61 minutes of play against awesome defenders like Luke Walton and Dion Waiters?
Yeah, the final score says 5 points difference but this was bad. Kyrie Irving should have scored 31 and his team still should have lost by 10.
Didn't happen, and that's a shame.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored only 15 points tonight. He actually shot 50% from the field but he got up only 14 total shots, attempting but 2 free throws. The team went around, not through, him. The only time he looked vexed about it was late in the game but the offense lacked continuity all game long. Unlike the nights where everybody passes to everybody this was an either-or situation and the team chose "or". Aldridge had 10 rebounds and 4 nasty, NASTY blocks to help bring his team back in the second half.
Nicolas Batum saved Portland's first half with the flurries mentioned above, ending the game 8-17, 3-9 from distance, 4-5 from the foul line, for a team-high 23 points. He also committed a team-high 9 turnovers. He made up for it somewhat with 12 rebounds. He was in the right place at the right time most of the game but his passes weren't. The other story of Batum's night was foul trouble. He collected 5 total and had to leave during key stretches because of whistles. That didn't help Portland's effort.
Wesley Matthews picked his spots on offense and was effective, hitting 4-8 from distance and netting 17 points. His defense still looks a little slow and he, like Batum, collected 5 fouls. He added 6 rebounds. Good night for him overall.
Damian Lillard had one of the stranger games we've yet seen. At the beginning of the night he looked like he was forcing shots, perhaps trying to step up and match Irving. When his shots didn't fall (and when Irving schooled him a little) he shrunk into his shell a little. He passed the ball well enough but he abandoned his offensive aggression wholly, eschewing shots that he'd normally take. He poked his head out of the sand late in the game to try and put his team over the top but that didn't really work. Meanwhile Irving was marching a one-man victory parade. Lillard finished 3-9, 1-5 from the arc for 13 points. To his credit he did get to the foul line tonight...an aspect of his game that's gone AWOL lately. He hit 6-8 from the stripe. He also had 7 assists. Let's hope the battle with Irving wasn't on Lillard's mind at the start of this game. To say Irving won the showdown would imply their was a showdown. There wasn't. Irving was the show, Lillard was just down. We've not seen that happen much this year, if ever.
J.J. Hickson did what he could with 13 points and 11 rebounds but tonight his inability to catch the ball underneath was on full display. The 2 turnovers credited to him pretty much guaranteed that his failure to grab the dish went on somebody else's ledger.
The big bench story tonight, besides the futility mentioned above, was the DNP-CD's. No Luke Babbitt. No Ronnie Price. Nolan Smith got his first run in forever and ended up with 4 rebounds and 3 points on 1-4 shooting in 12 minutes. Joel Freeland's 1-3 clip was the best shooting off the bench. Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic, and Will Barton missed all 11 of their combined shots. Jeffries and Freeland rebounded well enough but that was about it from the reserves tonight...another miserable effort.
Milwaukee comes in on Saturday night. Let's hope the good, long rest not only lets the Blazers recuperate their bodies, but get their minds straight.
Fear The Sword gets a win tonight!