The Blazers continue their four-game road trip tonight in Cleveland, taking on the Cavaliers, owners of a 4-2 December record.
Cleveland's attack features current Eastern Conference Player of the Week, point guard Kyrie Irving, who does a little bit of everything for the Cavaliers. He gets to the rim, scores off the dribble, sets teammates up reasonably well and can pick up steals on the defensive end. Irving is the Cavs' leader in scoring, assists, steals, three-pointers taken and overall shots attempted.
Lately, though Irving has garnered national accolades, he's not shooting the ball with overwhelming efficiency. He's shot 37 percent behind the three-point line and 43.7 percent from the field overall in his last five games. Irving's true shooting percentage is a respectable 54.3 percent in the same timespan, helped out by over five attempts at the free-throw line per game.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, though in the midst of his own inefficient slump, is scoring just a hair under Irving's output, pulling in about the same amount of assists but shooting slightly worse than Irving from all areas of the court. Lillard also benefits from getting to the line, and his seven free-throw attempts a game in recent weeks have buoyed his scoring average even though his shooting percentages have been sub-40 percent lately.
The Irving-Lillard matchup is intriguing, because both point guards are high-usage guys and play pretty similarly. Irving prefers to operate more within the three-point line -- he still launches over five triples a game -- and he finishes better at the rim than Lillard, who is capable in the mid-range but usually does his damage from beyond the arc or by attacking the rim. Both Irving and Lillard are among the league leaguers in attempted pull-up shots per game, though neither is efficient this season. Expect a lot of shots from both teams' point guards, as well as plenty of trips to the foul line.
The drop-off in production for the Cavaliers after Irving is significant. Guard Dion Waiters is Cleveland's best scorer behind their All-Star point guard, getting to the rim and pulling up in the mid-range, where he's pretty average. Waiters is horrible from outside, though he can stick the corner three when given the shot. Forward Tristan Thompson, backup guard Jarrett Jack and center Andrew Bynum round out the bulk of the Cavs offense. All three are capable shooters; Bynum and Thompson stay closer to the rim, where they're average finishers and Jack is a good outside shooter, decent in the mid-range and can score pretty well in the paint.
Cleveland guard C.J. Miles, forward Alonzo Gee and center Anderson Varejao all get shots up but recently none has been very efficient. 2013 No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennet, forward, apparently came into training camp out of shape and is now playing less than seven minutes a game and having very little impact.
As a unit, the Cavs really do nothing super well on offense. They don't score in the paint, push the ball successfully or pass the ball well. Cleveland shoots very poorly from within the three-point line and they're barely mediocre from outside. The fate of the Cavaliers often lies in how well Irving and Thompson play. If they can be stopped or forced into inefficient nights, Cleveland will certainly struggle. Waiters is also capable of bogging down his team's offense when his shot's off.
Defensively, Cleveland is mediocre-to-poor in most areas. They allow fast breaks, points in the paint and teams can pass the ball against them freely, usually without fear of a forced turnover. If Portland is hitting outside shots early -- they should have plenty of opportunities against a Cavs team that often struggles guarding the perimeter -- things could get rough for Cleveland. Young teams often bite on pump-fakes, over or under-rotate and leave guys wide-open when doubling an opposing player. The Blazers run arguably the NBA's most efficient offense, so the Cavaliers will likely have to play very disciplined to contain Portland's balanced offensive output that is spearheaded by Lillard and forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Guards Lillard, Mo Williams and Wesley Matthews and forwards Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright have all taken turns this year draining mostly uncontested three-pointers. Open looks are provided by Blazers coach Terry Stotts' offense that utilizes solid screen-setting and making the extra pass to an open teammate if it means a better shot can be had. Recently, Matthews has struggled from deep and Williams and Lillard have been fairly average. Batum and Wright have been much more reliable in the last several games from outside, so tonight might be the night when Matthews, Williams or Lillard steps up and reverses recent shooting woes against a soft Cleveland perimeter defense.
Aldridge is going to be difficult for the Cavs to stop tonight if he continues his recent trends of consistently canning the mid-range jumper and scoring inside as necessary, often drawing fouls. In single-coverage, Aldridge should be able to wear out Thompson or stretch out either Varejao or Bynum if Cleveland coach Mike Brown decides to guard him with a center. If the double is brought on Aldridge, the Cavs better rotate well because he can find an open teammate, who in turn can swing the ball to the other side of the court, usually providing an open catch-and-shoot look for one of Portland's perimeter weapons.
Cleveland isn't elite on the boards, but they do rebound pretty well defensively and they have some good individual rebounders in Bynum, Varejao and Thompson. All three are great on the defensive glass and Bynum crashes the offensive boards hard. Though the Blazers often struggle to corral opponents' misses, Aldridge and center Robin Lopez have been huge lately on both ends. On their own end of the court, second-chance points are created by the rebounding efforts of those two plus reserve bigs Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland. The rebounding battle should be tight tonight, with comparable front courts for both teams.
The Blazers should be able to execute their offense against a pretty average Cleveland defense, though they've played slightly better than usual the last handful of games. Still, when Aldridge is connecting on his jumper and the Blazers are taking and making open three-pointers, they've demonstrated how hard they are to stop. If Lillard improves his ability to finish at the rim and one or both of Williams or Matthews corrects recent shooting woes, life will get increasingly difficult for the Cavs.
Likewise, Cleveland's backcourt presents potential issues for Portland's defense. Lillard still struggles with quick, penetrating guards and Irving is one of the most talented ball-handlers in the league. He'll likely force extra Blazer defenders to help against his penetration, increasing the likelihood of kickouts for open looks and also drawing fouls against Portland's frontcourt players.
On paper, the Blazers overmatch the Cavaliers in several areas. Even so, Cleveland is 7-3 at home, Irving has been lights-out the last handful of games and he can attack Portland at a weak point.
Expect another hard-fought road game by the Blazers as they try to continue their recent stretch of strong play behind Aldridge, Lillard and Batum while attempting to contain Irving and forcing the Cavaliers' supporting cast to step up if they want the win tonight against Portland, owners of the best record in the NBA.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter