Fresh off a three-day rest, the Blazers host the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight at home before hitting the road for a four-game trip.
Last week, Cavaliers GM Chris Grant shipped center Andrew Bynum to the Bulls for forward Luol Deng, and the Cleveland fan base seems pretty enthusiastic about the acquisition. Deng, a two-time All-Star and effective two-way player, infuses talent into Cavs coach Mike Brown's lineup and improves the team on both ends of the court.
Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving, who missed three games earlier this month with a knee injury, is the biggest scoring threat for the Cavaliers. Irving is a decent three-point shooter on the season, but lately he's been on fire, hitting half his outside attempts since coming back from injury last week. His ability to get to the rim allows Irving to either draw a foul or set up a teammate with his passing ability. He's not the best finisher in the paint, but he's a solid jump-shooter and can't be ignored from the perimeter.
Irving is the focal point of Brown's offense, clearly, but guards C.J. Miles and Dion Waiters have emerged as high-usage players and the arrival of Deng shakes things up a bit.
Miles has been one of the best three-point shooters in the league the last several weeks, hitting 58 percent of his 6.2 attempts per contest. In a game against the 76ers last week, Miles set a team-record with 10 made threes. He's a decent finisher and mid-range shooter, but about half his attempts come from downtown. Miles also draws fouls and along with Irving, is a force on the defensive end creating steals from the Cavs backcourt.
Waiters is much less efficient than Irving and Miles, but he's also a volume-shooting sixth-man off the bench. Waiters is not shy to let it fly from deep, where he's been shooting 36 percent on five shots a night. Like Irving, he can get to the rim and either attack the hoop or kick the ball out. Waiters is not particularly efficient in the paint but he has a great jump-shot from about 15-20 feet out that he punished the Blazers with when the two teams met in mid-December.
The Cavs' starting frontcourt of Deng, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao is pretty reliable offensively, at least in the limited amount of court time shared so far. Deng is versatile, able to score inside well and also with jumpers, though his shot faltered the last time he faced the Blazers in November, a 6-17 performance in which he was only able to score near the rim.
Varejao has a few moves inside but can also stretch a defense out with his ability to score away from the hoop as a guy who spreads his shot attempts pretty evenly between the key and the mid-range. Thompson is much likelier to mix it up down low, with a shot that has improved as the season's progressed. In the first and only match-up of the year, Cleveland pounded Portland in points in the paint to the tune of 48-28 with Thompson, Irving and Waiters setting the tone that night for the Cavs in a 119-116 loss.
Guards Jarrett Jack and rookie Matthew Dellavedova come off the bench for solid minutes, but neither has shot well recently from inside the arc. Jack is really struggling with his outside shot, but Dellavedova is a huge threat from deep, along with Miles and Irving. Forward Earl Clark and big man Tyler Zeller round out the bulk of Brown's rotation. Clark has had a bad year altogether, shooting 25 percent from the field over the last few weeks. Zeller has actually led the team in field-goal percentage all season, though that mark has come in limited attempts.
Portland's defense has had trouble with the Cavs in the past, particularly with Irving. Blazers guards Damian Lillard and Mo Williams have certainly struggled defending quick point guards all season, and Irving will be prepared to go head-to-head with Lillard again tonight. The two young, star point guards combined for 45 shot-attempts the last time their teams met, with Lillard besting Irving after a 36-point effort and a game-winning three-pointer.
The Blazers' defense will also be tested against this frontcourt rotation. Thompson, Varejao, Deng and Zeller all are productive scorers inside, where it's well-known the Blazers give up a lot of points. Portland often prevents opposing teams from attempting threes, but they do give up a lot of mid-range shots, where Cleveland also features some potent scorers in Irving, Waiters and Deng. Expect the Cavs' jump-shooters to try and exploit Blazers coach Terry Stotts' defensive philosophy of allowing extended jumpers.
Cleveland has a great individual rebounder in Varejao, benefiting Thompson and allowing him to have a productive season on the boards, as well. As a team, the Cavs are pretty solid on the glass, but they'll have to scrap with Portland on the defensive end, because the Blazers rebound on their end of the court better than every team in the NBA but the Pistons. Portland big men Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland are all great on the offensive glass. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is also a great rebounder, though most of his contributions on the boards come from the defensive end.
Though Portland's defense has stumbled a bit recently, the offense continues humming along behind the efforts of All-Star hopefuls Lillard and Aldridge.
Lillard has seen his field-goal percentage increase ever-so-slightly recently, perhaps a sign that he's beginning to understand better when to go up strong to the hoop and when to contort his shot in an attempt to draw a foul -- not only has me made more of his shots recently, he's been to the line less. Of course, keep in mind Lillard's also still shooting almost half his shots from outside, making an incredible 48 percent of them. His assists are down a bit since the start of the year, but that could be due to both Williams and wing Nicolas Batum increasing their role as distributors the last several games. Williams has also improved his shot recently, hitting over 43 percent of his threes.
Aldridge continues to be a pillar for Stotts' offense, making about half of his shots, the majority of them coming from the mid-range. Aldridge is also a solid passer, helpful because he often gets double-teamed. His ability to find the open man helps allow Portland's offense to shift the ball efficiently until an open shot is found, often on the perimeter. Batum and guard Wesley Matthews, two of Portland's best deep-threats early, have regressed a bit from outside lately. Matthews has found other ways to score, partially from an expanded back-to-the-basket game when facing smaller defenders, but Batum is still trying to figure out a way to score effectively with a hurting middle finger on his left hand.
Lopez has maintained reliability when shot-attempts come his way, particularly from tip-ins and second-chance points due to his hustle on the offensive glass. Rookie guard C.J. McCollum has also proven to be a threat with the ball in his hands, hitting over half his field-goal attempts and 40 percent of his threes in two games thus far.
Even though Cleveland is 14-24 on the year, the trade for Deng should certainly help to reverse the early-season misfortunes of an under-performing Cavs squad. He proved last night how impactful he can be on a game in a 27-point scoring outburst against the Lakers. Brown now has another versatile threat to complement his core of Irving, Thompson and Waiters, and aside from a blowout loss to the Kings last week, Cleveland's played pretty well offensively as they implement Deng into the offense.
Don't be surprised to see another dogfight of a game despite the two teams' differing records, as both have plenty of offensive firepower to attack the opposing defense in positions of weakness. The Cavs played in Los Angeles last night, with the Blazers having a few days of rest since their home win over the Celtics on Saturday, which could work for or against them, as they've struggled out of the gate a bit lately. Still, Cleveland is in the middle of a long road trip and on the second night of a back-to-back, so they'll likely be tired.
Will the Blazers come out slow against a road-weary team? Recently they've allowed some sub-.500 teams to gain confidence early, making for close games most of the way. Portland heads out Friday to face the Spurs in San Antonio, followed by games in Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City. Tonight's home match-up with the Cavaliers is the Blazers' last in a streak of games against struggling Eastern Conference franchises, so securing a victory tonight against an improved Cleveland squad could set the tone for the upcoming stretch of tough games.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter