The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 93-88, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's record to 20-19.
This evening began in a slack jawed state. The Cavaliers, entering the Rose Garden with a record of 4-19 since Dec. 1 and without fringe All-Star candidate Anderson Varejao following a recent leg surgery, looked nothing like the Eastern Conference's dregs usually look by this time of year. The whole lot of them went through meaningful, rigorous pre-game warm-ups. Tyler Zeller loosened up with a rolling mechanism; Boobie Gibson ran himself into a full sweat with wind sprints; all of the Cavaliers wings got up shots; Luke Walton randomly executed some complicated dribbling exercises; and Kyrie Irving, bearing a wide superstar's smile, carefully honed his post moves and turnaround jumpers.
After finishing his work with one player and waiting for the next, a veteran Cavaliers assistant coach took a moment to offer a hello. I commented, apparently with perceptible astonishment, at how hard and how early his team was working out, and how many players were taking part.
"We have to," he said. "We have no choice."
Every young, rebuilding team has to put in the extra work and take a serious approach on a daily basis. Not all do. You can't win a game in warm-ups but you can win one in the first quarter, or at least go a long way towards winning one, and that's precisely what the Cavaliers did here. Cleveland jumped out early and took a 53-36 lead into halftime.
"Cleveland obviously in the first half played harder and better than we did," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
The word "obviously" can be one of those verbal tics that we all tend to share, and which sometimes winds up cut from transcripts because it's superfluous. The word's use here mattered because the disparity in effort and energy between the two teams early was, well, incredibly obvious, as clear as day.
"We just had a dry start," Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who finished with 13 points and seven assists, told Blazersedge. "We weren't making shots, they were. Anytime you're not making shots, the game because rough, especially when the other team is scoring in transition and making threes. We kind of got down about it. The last couple of home games, we've been into the game, making shots, playing with a lot of energy. Tonight they made shots and we didn't, and we let that bring our energy level down."
At halftime, Blazers forward Nicolas Batum was six-for-eight; all of his teammates combined were six-for-27. Compounding that struggle were 12 first-half turnovers, seven by Batum, and 28 points in the paint were conceded to a team whose frontline now consists of a notoriously undersized power forward, Tristan Thompson, and a stringbean rookie center in Zeller. Credit both Thompson, who finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds, and Zeller, who went for 11 points and nine rebounds, for their activity. Together they drew 15 free throw attempts, doing just enough to keep Portland from totally selling out defensively against Irving, who was magical through most of this one.
"We knew from an offensive standpoint, if we could get into the paint we had a good opportunity to score," Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said. "[Thompson's] confidence level is high and he's just been aggressive every game the last 15 games or so."
Cleveland played hard but this certainly wasn't the game of their lives. From the 2:05 mark of the third quarter to the 5:47 mark of the fourth, a stretch of eight-plus minutes, the Cavaliers didn't make a single field goal. How is it possible to win a game with an offense that bottomed out that hard?
By holding the Blazers to just 15 second-quarter points in one of their worst offensive stretches of the season. By letting Irving do Irving things down the stretch (eight of his game-high 31 points came in the final 3:23 of the fourth). And by winning the final two minutes, 7-2, as the Blazers stumbled through the closing sequences after a Lillard jumper gave Portland a rare lead at the 2:06 mark.
As Irving did his daily Chris Paul impression, delivering back-to-back baskets on one end, the Blazers saw their possessions end with a missed Batum jumper and a shovel pass from LaMarcus Aldridge to J.J. Hickson that wound up out of bounds. That sequence put Portland down three with 26 seconds remaining, and Stotts elected to go for the quick two and foul down to extend the game as long as possible.
While teams usually give the ball to their best off-the-dribble creator to attack the rim, Portland's first quick two attempt went to Aldridge, who made a somewhat difficult turnaround jumper look perfectly simple. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"The quick two to L.A., I was very happy with that," Stotts said. "There was plenty of time on the clock."
Irving then hit the forced foul free throws, leaving Portland down three again with 19 seconds remaining. Rather than set up a three-pointer, the Blazers went to a high screen-and-roll for Lillard to attack off the dribble. As Zeller switched out and help defenders covered the hoop, Lillard decided to feed a cutting Hickson in the middle of the paint, who drew a foul with a fairly aggressive move to the hoop. Hickson, shooting 65.5 percent from the free throw line on the season, missed both free throws. On the night, he shot three-for-six at the line.
"We were down three and we wanted to get a quick look at the rim, we didn't want to just settle for a three because if we missed it, we could go down five," Lillard told Blazersedge. "I attacked, I saw J.J. rolling down the middle. I figured it would be a dunk, maybe an and-one, and we [would have] tied the game and then have to get a stop. [There] wasn't any reason for me to force up a shot when he was right under the rim."
Hickson, who tallied 13 points and 11 rebounds, added: "I was going up to score, I got fouled in the action. I went up and missed two free throws, I wish I could have them back now. There's nothing we can do about it. I've just got to make a mental note the next time I'm in that position to knock them down."
It's fair to wonder both about the play's design and Lillard's decision not to shoot, as Hickson wasn't exactly at the rim but in the middle of the paint, with defenders in front of him, when he made the catch. Hickson has never shot better than 68.1 percent for a season from the free throw line. Down three, it's imperative that both shots are made or a one-possession game becomes a two-possession game if even one try is missed. A 65.5 percent free throw shooter, absent pressure, fatigue and any other factors, has a 42.9 percent chance of making both free throws. Going into that play expecting an and-one seems ambitious; going into the play understanding that there's a good chance a diving Hickson, generally the fifth option on offense among the starters, winds up at the free throw line with the odds of failure better than the odds of success is a bit itchy.
"You want to create something," Stotts said. "[Lillard] made a decision. If J.J. [makes] an and-one, it's a great decision. As it turned out, it wasn't, he missed the free throws."
The coach, having suffered through his fourth close loss in a row, then went on a brief aside.
"It seems like every game you want me to comment on their decision-making," Stotts said in response to the Blazersedge query. "They're out there, they're making the plays. Damian came off the ball screen, they doubled, he passed to J.J., J.J. went up strong, got fouled, and that's it. There's still a lot of time. When J.J. took the free throws, we still had a timeout. If he makes both free throws, we go for a three the next time."
The quick two strategy in that situation was sound enough. Open questions for future consideration were raised by the result. 1) Why was Hickson the screen-setter in that situation, understanding that Cleveland would pay extra attention to Lillard as they had all night? 2) Should Hickson have been replaced by an extra shooter to help space the defense and capitalize on the very real possibility of a drive-and-kick? 3) Should Lillard, in similar situations in the future, be strongly encouraged to go against his subtler instincts and attack the hoop with greater abandon, especially considering that he's shooting 83 percent from the line on the season and 53 percent in the restricted area?
To Hickson's credit, he not only took responsibility for the missed free throws but he also refused to make excuses for his late-game miscues. For a player who succeeds largely on his instincts and opportunism, it must be difficult shuttling in and out of the game in offense/defense situations, as he was against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Of course, the logic of using him in such a manner is unimpeachable, but I wondered if perhaps being the only uncertain piece in Portland's closing five was influencing his play.
"That would be the cop out thing to say," Hickson told Blazersedge. "I'm a no excuses guy. We just have to make better basketball plays down the stretch... I'd be lying if I said I didn't [want to stay on the floor on offense and defense]. Who doesn't want to be in the game late in the game to help their team to win a ball game? Coach Stotts has been doing a great job at making adjustments and subbing for certain plays and lineups. Whatever he's doing, I'm rolling with it."
The Blazers otherwise generally fell back a similar post-game talking point: they've had at least as much success as failure in late-game situations this season and they've beaten good teams in one or two possession games.
"It can go any way," Matthews said of Portland's last eight games, which have all been close. "We'll take being 4-4. We're not happy with it. We feel like we should have won every single one of those. We probably should have. That's how the ball bounces sometimes. We've got to learn from it. This is the way we were losing earlier this season and we turned it around. We'll turn it back around."
Matthews' words offer a sense of the level-headed response to what was, overall, a stinker. The excitement following some of the recent home triumphs was gone but this group wasn't despairing.
Zooming out, the enduring memories from this one will be of the Cavaliers' preparedness amid a bleak stretch and Irving's calm in the big moments. Lillard's had a few of his own this year but, more important than any particular high or low, is the quantity of repetitions he's getting in game-deciding situations. The step-back three isn't always the best look and he, much like Irving, has the skillset to beat teams in just about every way. Win or lose, the fine-tuning will continue.
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced at 18,880, which was generous. Lots of empty seats at tip off and fairly dead throughout the ugly first half. Paul Allen was in attendance and milling about with his team and GM Neil Olshey well before the game started.
- On a night with some bumps, Hickson did deliver a highlight reel two-hand post over Cavaliers forward Alonzo Gee. Here's the video via YouTube user ESPN.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought it was a very good effort in the second half from us. We were down 17 at the half. I thought Cleveland obviously in the first half played harder and better than we did. We fought. We've lost four close ones in a row, before that we won four close ones. We've got to get back on track making plays in the last few minutes, last minute of the game. I'm pretty sure that will happen. These have been tightly contested emotional games. Last night in Denver. We've got to recoup, take tomorrow off and be ready for Saturday.
Emotions from these close games taking a toll?
Probably more so afterwards. When you get in the heat of a contest in the fourth quarter, I think all that's out the window. The effects afterwards are when you feel it. We weren't thinking about that, I don't think anybody is thinking about that in the fourth quarter. We're competing and we're trying to win a game.
Defense on Damian Lillard
They put a big body on him. They didn't put Irving on him. To be honest, that's a compliment to Damian, how important he is to our team, they picked him up early. Like a lot of teams that try to do that, it's difficult to do that for an entire game. They did in the first half, they wore out, they didn't do it as much in the second half. They still had Gee on him. They made him a priority. I thought the way Damian came out in the second half, the way he made three great nice passes to L.A. L.A. made two shots and swung the ball to Wes for a third one. Those three shots, which got us right back into the game, were a direct result of Damian being patient, and making the pass out of the double team. Teams are making Damian a priority just like L.A. is a priority when teams try to double him. I think he's patient enough to know that his opportunity with the ball is going to come back, and he's just going to make plays and we make them pay on the weakside.
Alonzo Gee impacted Lillard's game?
In the first half, his full court pressure, he didn't bring the ball up as much. The ball was not in Damian's hands as much in the first half. As the game wore on, the impact was less and less.
Decision to go for quick twos in the final possessions
The quick two to L.A., I was very happy with that. There was plenty of time on the clock. The second time, we had a pick-and-roll, you want to create something. He made a decision. If J.J., if it's an and-one, it's a great decision. As it turned out, it wasn't, he missed the free throws. It seems like every game you want me to comment on their decision-making, they're out there, they're making the plays. Damian came off the ball screen, they doubled, he passed to J.J., J.J. went up strong, got fouled, and that's it. There's still a lot of time. When J.J. took the free throws, we still had a timeout. If he makes both free throws, we go for a three the next time.
I was really pleased with the bench. Everyone is going to look at the fact that they shot 2 for whatever. I thought Joel played well, Nolan played well, Jared Jeffries' impact on the game helped turn things around. That doesn't show in the box score. Will Barton was solid, he missed his shots, Sasha was fine, he had two misses. You look at the box score and they didn't shoot well, they got seven points off the bench, but they had good energy and they played well.
Can you explain the sluggish start?
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter