Portland Trail Blazers (32-13, No. 3 in the West) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (26-20, No. 5 in the East)
Wednesday, January 28
Quicken Loans Arena; Cleveland, OH | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, Nicolas Batum (questionable) | Out for the Cavaliers: Brendan Haywood (day-to-day), Anderson Varejao
SBN Affiliate: Fear the Sword | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
The Blazers are in Cleveland tonight to face the Cavaliers, two days after the NBA postponed Portland's matchup with the Brooklyn Nets amid warnings of an incoming blizzard.
The Cavs have been on a roll the last couple weeks, winners of seven games in a row and owners of the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland started the season a bit bumpier than anticipated but was sent reeling from December 28 to January 13, a stretch when the team lost nine of its 10 contests. Superstar forward LeBron James sat out the first nine of those games in that two-week stretch, resting his body after an uncharacteristically slow start to the season.
On January 5, Cavs GM David Griffin sent struggling guard Dion Waiters packing in a three team trade that brought in guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Two days later, Griffin turned two first-round picks into center Timofey Mozgov in a deal with the Nuggets.
Since the Cavaliers have had a few weeks to integrate their new parts and after a tune-up game with James back in the lineup, they've rattled off seven straight victories, including a win over the Pistons last night.
James and point guard Kyrie Irving have gone bananas during Cleveland's winning streak. Although James has hit just 29.7 percent of his threes the last seven games, he's made two-thirds of his shots at the rim and half his shots in the paint. Sure, his jumper hasn't been perfect and he's struggled a bit with turnovers, but James has contributed 6.7 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.1 steals per night since the streak started. His 10.1 trips to the foul line help bring his scoring average in that time to 30.1 points per game.
Irving is having probably his best shooting stretch of the season, hitting a remarkable 54.1 percent of his threes the last seven games and almost two-thirds of his midrange jumpers. Irving's floater looks good but he has struggled to finish at the rim a bit. Still, he's passing the ball pretty well, scoring on his own and, like James, picking up plenty of steals on the defensive end.
As a whole, Cleveland's offense is functioning efficiently right now. Over the last couple weeks, the Cavs are top-10 in points per game, field goal percentage and three point shooting percentage and, according to NBA.com, the No. 1 overall team in Offensive Rating since their current winning streak started.
Somehow, power forward Kevin Love has managed to be less productive than usual over the last seven games, averaging 14.5 points on 38.2 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent on his threes. Love may be struggling to fit in as a secondary scoring option after spending his first several seasons as the alpha-dog in Minnesota, but his numbers have been down across the board all season and he's been more of a catch-and-shoot player this year than ever before.
On the opposite trajectory of Love is Smith, who has excelled as a three-point specialist in Cavs coach David Blatt's system after toiling in New York under coach Derek Fisher, team president Phil Jackson and their Triangle Offense. Now that Smith can catch the ball and shoot without hesitation, he's put up 8.7 three-pointers a night the last couple weeks and has cashed in on 37.7 percent of them.
Blatt plays a nine-man rotation, with Mozgoz rounding out the starting lineup at center. He's a good finisher around the rim, and his massive frame is good for pick-setting and gaining positioning down low for rebounds.
Off the bench comes Shumpert and guard Matthew Dellavedova, along with forward Shawn Marion and big man Tristan Thompson. Shumpert's played in three games with the Cavs, but he's shot well from outside in limited attempts. Dellavedova is more of a distributor but can hit the three when called upon and both Marion and Thompson prefer to operate within about 10 feet of the basket and both have hit over half their field goals the last couple weeks.
One could argue that Cleveland has recently benefited from a fairly soft schedule; Among the last seven wins, three were against the Hornets, Jazz and Lakers and they caught the Pistons last night just days after point guard Brandon Jennings was lost for the season. Even so, the Cavs have played decent defense since the streak started and have limited opponents to shooting 40.2 percent from the field recently, good for third in the league. Otherwise, opponents can move the ball effectively against the Cavaliers and they're not great at defending the perimeter.
In two games without LaMarcus Aldridge last week, the Blazers struggled to create open looks for each other and the All-Star power forward's importance to the team was more evident than ever as guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews struggled from the floor in back-to-back losses against the Suns and Celtics.
With Aldridge back in the lineup Saturday, Portland's starting backcourt combined to hit 7-of-17 three-pointers. Lillard racked up seven assists and finished with 20 points thanks to his 8-of-8 free throw shooting and Matthews scored 19. Aldridge also hit eight free throws and nine of his 22 shots, cruising to a 26-point performance even though he's playing through the pain of a lateral tear in his left thumb. With him on the court, the Blazers' perimeter players get much cleaner looks, and against a team like Cleveland, they should be able to do so again.
Starting center Chris Kaman -- filling in for injured bigs Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland -- has been hot-and-cold lately with his offense, often more cold than hot as he's struggled to hold onto the ball and finish down low. Tonight, however, Kaman may be able to put his jumper on display when matched up with Mozgov, as the 7-foot-1 Russian prefers to stay close to the hoop defensively and may not venture out to fully contest shots at the elbows, one of Kaman's favorite spots.
Forward Nicolas Batum's wrist was feeling better yesterday during practice, but, like Aldridge, he is suffering an injury that will be painful until he gets corrective surgery. Batum's listed as questionable tonight and will decide on whether or not to go based on how his wrist feels. He sat out Saturday against the Wizards after struggling through the loss against Boston, and a matchup with James certainly doesn't favor a banged-up Batum.
Portland coach Terry Stotts went 11-deep Saturday in the win over Washington, playing extended minutes to forward Dorell Wright, center Meyers Leonard and guard Will Barton off the bench. Wright and Leonard both shot well from long distance, the former registering a great all-around game with 10 points, six rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes. Barton hasn't shot the ball particularly well lately but he's surpassed guard CJ McCollum in Stotts' rotation for now, who's been ineffective in limited minutes.
Guard Steve Blake and forward Thomas Robinson haven't played consistently solid from game-to-game the last couple weeks, but Robinson has hit almost a third of his limited shots in that time and has been contributing heavily on the boards. As of now, he's in line for more minutes off the bench than forward Victor Claver, who earned a DNP-CD Saturday night. Wing Allen Crabbe started in place of Batum against Washington but had a very nondescript seven minutes.
The Blazers' defense could take a solid beating tonight, as the Cavs have been one of the best offensive teams in the league recently behind the strong play of James and Irving, who scored 32 and 38, respectively, on a combined 24-for-47 outing from the field last night against the Pistons. The Blazers slipped last week a bit defensively with injuries to Aldridge and Batum, but they had a better game Saturday -- though they gave up 48.8 percent shooting from the field, 17 fast break points and 24 assists, Portland limited the Wizards to 5-of-15 shooting from deep, allowed only 24 points in the paint and sent them to the line just 14 times.
The Cavs have been a great rebounding team since their seven-game winning streak started a couple weeks ago, especially on the offensive end with Thompson and Mozgov. The Blazers' rebounding hasn't been stellar recently, but they did limit Washington to just two offensive rebounds while Aldridge and Kaman performed well on the glass. Leonard's size and Robinson's hustle may be needed up front tonight against a Cleveland frontcourt that includes Love, one of the better rebounders in the NBA while with the Timberwolves.
The Blazers are catching the Cavs in the midst of a long win-streak and at home, but Portland hasn't played since Saturday and Cleveland was in Detroit last night, when Irving played 42 minutes and James 36. Though Mozgov protects the basket well and James is a good defender, Irving isn't that solid and Smith tends to take plays off. Aldridge will also be playing against a struggling Love, who can't seem to do much right lately. Watch for plenty of threes from Lillard and Matthews tonight, which should work in conjunction with Aldridge's post play and jumpshooting.
If the Blazers can slow Irving and James -- which is much easier said than done, obviously -- they could produce enough offense to pick up a win in Cleveland before heading to Atlanta Friday for a date with the Hawks, the No. 1 team in the East.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: