There's an old adage in poker: it doesn't matter how many pots you win as long as you take home the big ones. That principle served the Portland Trail Blazers well in their 108-96 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight in a game that was far closer than the final score indicated.
There's no real need for a quarter-by-quarter recap of this game. Aside from a chaotic opening in which both teams apparently lost their minds--throwing up shots in the first 10 seconds of possession that would make an inveterate YMCA chucker blush in shame--the pattern stayed steady all night.
Cleveland did a masterful job on the boards tonight. LaMarcus Aldridge was the only Trail Blazer who rebounded with any ease. Nicolas Batum occasionally got in licks. Other than that it seemed like two Cavaliers were bumping any Blazer who chased a carom within six feet of the hoop. Cleveland largely eliminated Portland's second-chance lifeline.
For the first half of the game the Cavs also contested most of Portland's three-point attempts, leaving the well dry. Cleveland appeared to succumb to fatigue in the second half and three-point coverage was the first line of defense to crumble.
Cleveland would carefully build an advantage in each quarter, grabbing those rebounds, forcing turnovers, driving inside. Then the whole thing came crumbling to the ground in the last 3 minutes as the Blazers would storm back behind withering barrages from LaMarcus Aldridge. A couple threes, a couple free throws, and a steady diet of Aldridge points late in each quarter put the Blazers ahead in every period save the first even though Cleveland outplayed them for much of the clock.
The Cavaliers fell apart in two major ways. Their defensive rotations near the hoop were murderously bad in the first half, allowing Portland to stay in the game despite struggling to score in any but the most obvious ways. Every time the Blazers set a high screen they'd find a wide-open man at the bucket. The Cavaliers corrected this in the second half at the aforementioned cost of leaving shooters open on the perimeter. But even that didn't kill them. No...on a night in which they were butchering Portland's guards every time they drove, Cleveland fell to their own lack of judgment. As the game wound down the Cavaliers settled for jumper after jumper, most of which missed. Typically the Blazers would have been down 8-10 before making their furious run at the end of the game, escaping with the narrow win or ruing a tight loss. Instead the Blazers started that run locked up with the Cavs, as they had been most of the game. Thus the final fourth-quarter flurry produced a dozen-point victory instead of 2-4.
After trailing the Cavaliers for most of the game in field goal percentage and shooting miserably from distance in the first half the Blazers ended up beating Cleveland 48%-44% from the field and hitting 11 of their 27 triples, a healthy 41% success rate. The Blazers managed 11 offensive rebounds for the game, a couple off their average, but many of those rebounds were chase-down and they had to work hard for their points after. 16 turnovers proved plenty dangerous, leading to 19 Cavalier points...around 1/5 of Cleveland's total. But more shots shot better with 30% of them coming from beyond the arc proved too much for the Cavs to overcome.
The scoring in this game was all about two players. LaMarcus Aldridge put in 32 but needed 26 shots to do it. His signature moment came with 3:17 left in the game and Portland down 1. The Blazers had run a sloppy possession and Aldridge was left holding the hot potato, beyond the arc and guarded, as the shot clock hit zero. He lofted a triple and it went in. That was his first make from range all season. The Blazers never trailed after. Aldridge also muscled his way to 18 rebounds, a habit which has got to frustrate opponents by now. It isn't enough that the guy seems unstoppable with the jumper and carries his team's offense whenever needed, he's also turned into a bona fide rebounding machine.
Damian Lillard completed Portland's scoring ying-yang, appearing to take his matchup with Kyrie Irving seriously from the start by shooting early and often. Lillard went 10-20, 5-10 from the arc, for 28 points. It's not so much that the Cavaliers lost containment on those threes. Rather he shot them so quickly that Flash couldn't have gotten there on roller skates. Lillard also had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals.
Nicolas Batum didn't shoot much (3-5) and had a hard time containing Luol Deng (10-20 for 25 points) but Deng tired while Batum kept on chugging to the tune of 7 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. Maybe Batum doesn't need to shoot more for the Blazers to win right now but his triple is looking rusty from disuse.
Speaking of rusty, Wesley Matthews fought his shot tonight whether taking a jumper or trying to score in the post. He shot 5-12 for 15 points. He had 4 assists to the good but his defense left a little to be desired.
And speaking of less-than-desirable defense, at a certain point it looked like the Cavaliers' entire offensive plan boiled down to, "Get the ball to whomever Mo Williams is guarding." Mo had 7 assists in 29 minutes but shot 3-11, scored 8, committed 3 turnovers and 3 personal fouls, and still ate some of Matthews' minutes because Cleveland's shooting guards were speedy scorers.
We've seen Robin Lopez foiled by jump-shooting big men this year. We've seen him at the mercy of a couple really skilled or really athletic centers. We've seen him hung out to dry by his own guards, asked to help when they've let their man go. We've also seen Lopez perform pretty well in most of those situations and extra-well when the matchups didn't go against him. Tonight was the only time all year that we've seen Lopez outplayed at his own game. Anderson Varejao was more energetic, rebounded better, defended better, and suppressed Lopez for most of the evening. Robin struck on a couple offensive boards and a couple opportunity shots in the halfcourt but he managed only 4 rebounds and 8 points. Varejao had 14 boards. To Lopez's credit I was surprised by this turn. It reminds you how few times he's been overmatched this year by anyone but the best of centers.
Thomas Robinson played with the usual energy and netted 6 rebounds in 13 minutes.
Joel Freeland looked faster than Lopez or Varejao but got bumped around pretty good. 4 points and a board in 15 minutes.
C.J. McCollum got to play with the ball in his hands a little more tonight and struggled, shooting 1-3 and committing 2 turnovers in 12 minutes. It wasn't a great night for the bench, or for anyone really save Aldridge, Lillard, and part of Batum.
The extended homestand is now complete. The Blazers played 5 of their last 6 games at home, won 4 of those 6, and took advantage of shaky opponents. That story changes now as they embark on a serious 4 games in 5 nights swing through San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and Oklahoma City. In a marathon season this is a killer hill. But the Blazers have maintained a good pace and built a cushion that should make stretches like this manageable. Let's see how they fare, especially against the Mavericks. They owe Dallas a home loss, after all. The ascent begins Friday night.
Fear The Sword might be a little upset that the Cavaliers stabbed themselves in the foot with it tonight after giving a pretty good battle to the Blazers.
Your Jersey Contest scores. We're preparing the next bank of forms so there might not be one for San Antonio. Stay tuned.