Over the last three games fans of the Portland Trail Blazers have alternated between speculation and lament when describing the play of star point guard Damian Lillard. Starting the season slowly has become a habit for the former Rookie of the Year but with expectations high, this year's misses and mistakes somehow seemed more pronounced than usual.
Rejoice, Portland! Your newest favorite son turned conquering hero tonight, pouring in 27 points to lead his team to a 101-82 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Ecstatic Portland fans who want to re-watch this game are advised to hit up Pandora for some Wham! and early Madonna, as the first-quarter defense was a straight callback to 1985. The teams combined for approximately 90% shooting to open the period, including a 10 of 10 spree for the Cavaliers. If you like offense, this was your quarter.
The Blazers made their bones by feeding Robin Lopez down low against Anderson Varejao. Lopez made his counterpart look small and old, scoring plenty of "biggest man in the room" points. When not operating out of the LoPost, Portland concentrated on driving past the Cavaliers, scoring at the cup, drawing fouls, and crashing the offensive glass from close range.
The Cavs, on the other hand, bombed away from the three-point arc and mid-range. They found open jumpers and drained every one. Their marksmanship eventually freed up the inside, duplicating Portland's attack in the lane.
With both teams pushing the pace, this amounted to a frenzy. Nicolas Batum stayed alert and active for the Blazers. The Cavs always seemed to have somebody leaking out to run. The result was a 34-31 period that left all participants lathered in a sweat. Cleveland had the edge by 3 but you knew this couldn't continue. Which offense would lose its mojo first?
The second period provided a quick answer to that question: both of them. The Portland bench took the court in force for the first time this season. Chris Kaman, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, and Steve Blake joined Wesley Matthews in scoring a whopping 6 points over the first 5 minutes of the quarter. Cleveland's bench responded with a half-whopping 3. Tempo evaporated; possessions dragged. You might as well have dressed up both sides in striped aprons and hats, having them march through the crowd yelling, "Ug-LAY! Get your UGLAY here!"
When the starters took the floor midway through the period Portland's tempo and precision increased. Cleveland's defense proved incapable of keeping up with the Blazers' ball movement...mostly due to copious doses of "give up and stare" on the Cavs' part. LeBron James led the bystander brigade, making a wave at steals then standing and staring when they didn't come to fruition and Portland scored....again.
On offense the Cavaliers began a trend that would continue through the rest of the evening: lots of passing, zero teamwork. Cleveland got decent results out of any screens they set well tonight. They occasionally ran two-man sets to good effect as well. But the remainder of their offense consisted of passing the ball around to see who would go 1-on-1 against Portland's defense. They might as well have spun a big wheel halfway through each possession to determine the shooter. It wouldn't have been any less obvious.
Portland's defense gets maligned, often for good cause. But the Blazers are long and stocked with good individual defenders. If you telegraph where you're going, you're going to end up in an impenetrable thicket of arms and bodies. That's exactly what happened to the Cavs. Everyone from LeBron to Dion Waiters ended up working extra hard for contested jumpers and prayer-filled flips around the rim. It was a glorious display of Portland's prowess and what happens when you don't care enough to try and work around it.
The second period also saw the rebirth of Damian Lillard's offense, back from summer hiatus. Lillard hit a three in the first quarter but everyone wondered if it was random or a sign of things to come. As he checked into the second, every shepherd in the vicinity reached into their pocket to find a buzzing phone. Text received from Angel110414: "Do not be afraid!"
Yup. It was a sign.
As the game progressed Lillard began to drain a dizzying array of three-pointers, almost mocking Cleveland's first-quarter display. "You call those threes? THESE are threes!" Behind Lillard, Portland blitzed into halftime with a 5-point lead, 55-50.
Still, everybody knew LeBron was just around the corner. How would he answer?
Lillard continued scoring in the third quarter but the Blazers also folded in their old standby: working the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge in the halfcourt. Aldridge would score 10 in the period, first from the post and foul line, then on jumpers. The Blazers also returned to their tempo-pushing ways of the first quarter, putting pressure on the opponent to keep up. The Cavaliers kept to a mild trot throughout, perhaps hoping to weather the storm? But this is Portland. You don't weather storms. You dodge them or you drown.
Cleveland did make headway when the Blazer bench returned, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson alternated long shots and flying moves to the rim which the Blazers didn't quite match. By that time the damage was done, though, Aldridge and Lillard nailed their team to a 76-69 lead heading into the fourth.
Still, everybody knew LeBron was just around the corner. How would he answer?
The fourth quarter proved the antithesis of the first, with both teams playing defense at a high level. As foreshadowed by the early minutes of the game, offensive style made all the difference. The Blazers continued to move and find open men, particularly Lillard and Matthews at the arc. Cleveland passed the ball but didn't move their feet along with it, leaving Portland's defense set.
The Blazers' scheme provided points. Cleveland's? Not so much.
Some of the best moments of the game--and of the season--came when James drove against a single defender only to find two more bracketing him as he approached the rim because the attack was so obvious. After a couple half-hearted attempts at flinging 6-footers from the opposite side of the rim because the lane was so clogged, LeBron gave up. He returned to passing off the ball to teammates, showing all the urgency of your common banana slug. The long-anticipated answer from the Great One was, "Fold." And that was that. The Blazers walked away with a much-needed inspirational victory, 101-82.
This game was unlike any of Portland's so far. They came out with energy from the opening tip. It lagged and flagged in stretches, but for the most part you saw all five starters making contributions throughout.
That the Blazers opened up feeding Lopez while Batum played maestro everywhere but on the ball demonstrated the renewed approach. In that atmosphere the eventual contributions of Aldridge and Lillard proved fatal to the opponent instead of a desperation attempt for the Blazers to stay close.
Running faster-tempo ball was nice as well. We've seen it during opportunistic plays but not for long stretches like we did in the first and third periods tonight. If the second unit can ever catch up with the starters in coordinated defense and rebounding, they could use that fast tempo to great advantage.
Unsurprisingly the Blazers turned around their recent pattern of running a free-throw deficit with their quicker, more aggressive approach. This team has a reputation for efficiency but their numbers key off of energy as much as skill. They're surgeons but the operation works better when they're also the guys you can't keep up with.
Cleveland, on the other hand, looked in no condition to play after that first period. If they weren't 3 games into the season I'd guess they were fatigued or on the verge of mutiny. They let each other down, turning the Moda Center court into a Middle School dance floor for all the chemistry they showed.
This may not have been the truest test of Portland's capabilities but it came against a marquee team during a stretch where momentum has been elusive. You probably can't hang a "Portland is going to be better than Cleveland" banner on this win, but you can sure say, "They needed that, they wanted that, they earned that, and this is a very good thing."
Fun With Numbers
- The funnest number of all: LeBron James scored 11 points on 4-12 shooting, 0 points scored in the second half. Taking only 12 shots with 1 free throw attempt tells you most of what you need to know about LeBron in this game. Yes, he got 7 assists but the offense never got flowing around him. "How would LeBron answer?" Don't know. Got his voice mail. No doubt he'll respond in person when the Blazers visit Cleveland.
- The Blazers shot 49%, the Cavaliers 37%. Wow.
- Portland won the free-throw battle 25-14, finishing the night +8 from the foul line.
- Cleveland out-shot the Blazers from the arc 43% (9-21) to 32% (8-25) but the Blazers ended up winning in the paint 38-32, winning on the break 10-9, plus committing fewer turnovers. Meanwhile the Cavs won the offensive rebounding battle 13-9. Add that all together and you have Cleveland imitating the Blazers (on a bad night) and the Blazers imitating teams that beat the Blazers (when the Blazers play poorly). It's nice to be on that end of the equation for a change.
Damian Lillard shot 5-10 from distance, 6-13 overall, 10-10 from the foul line on his way to a game-high 27 points plus 7 assists. He played the kind of video-game offense the Blazers love: everything a three or a strong drive. Meanwhile Kyrie Irving shot 3-17 for 9 points. You can screen Dame all night long but don't try to dribble right at him. First you're going sideways, then you're hoisting an ugly shot.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 16 on 7-15 shooting. The only real difficulty he had all night came when he was matched up against Kevin Love and had to chase him around the perimeter. The Blazers switched him off that detail when they could.
Wesley Matthews had another really nice game with 8-14 shooting on an array of threes mixed with the occasional post move or drive. He didn't respect Cleveland's defense much. He scored 21 with 6 rebounds.
Robin Lopez dominated on offense, mostly in the post but also with his "Lookie here!" jumper from the seams. He shot 8-11 for 19 points plus 3 steals. He dominated Varejao something fierce.
Nicolas Batum missed all 3 of his triple attempts but finished the game with 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 7 points. That left him 4 points behind LeBron, 2 assists behind, 2 rebounds ahead. The Blazers will take those numbers. Batum also set the tone for this game early with his hustle and commitment.
Chris Kaman continued his early-season roll with 7 rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench.
Thomas Robinson did him one better with 8 rebounds in 11 minutes (plus 3 personal fouls, but who's counting?)
Steve Blake played 21 minutes and faced the extra challenge of not playing with the regular scorers. He held up his end defensively but the offense stalled under his watch. (Not entirely his fault, that.)
Will Barton once again claimed the reserve wing minutes, playing 12 of them and shooting 1-5 in the process. Did I mention that the second unit needs to find a way to run more?
THE BAD NEWS FOR THE EVENING: The Blazers indeed wore their sleeved jerseys and now they'll be considered lucky. But they actually didn't look that bad.
Our Instant Recap, including post-game reaction from around the 'web, our own GameDay thread, and a first-blush assessment of the game. (Plus they got to write "Blazers Destroy Cavs" in the headline. That's a good night.
Fear The Sword will be muttering about a 1-2 start the same way Blazer's Edge was before this night made all things new (for now).
Stay tuned for our In-Arena Report, which is sure to include plenty of wild, enthusiastic stories from the Moda Center.
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge