Uh, heat check?
But the heat could not be checked
I'm a guy who would rather watch highlights of good closeouts and solid swing passes than lobs and blocked shots, appreciating the little things that teammates do for one another and why that makes basketball such a beautiful sport. So I'm reticent to reduce an entire competition between 20 players, 6+ coaches, and two organizations to the play of one individual.
But sometimes that's the way it is.
To understand this game, you really have to start with the first meeting between these two teams. In that game, Cleveland had Lebron James but were without their newly acquired reinforcements - JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov. The Cavs strategy was clear - run spread pick and rolls with Kyrie Irving or Lebron and use Kevin Love to space the floor. This creates all kinds of problems as the defense is forced to choose between leaving a shooter open or helping on the pick and roll.
The Blazers' coaches put on their logic hats, called "false dichotomy", and avoided that decision altogether. Portland switched everything or dropped their bigs back and defended the pick and roll with just two players. This led to lots of mismatches and one-on-one play as the Cavs abandoned their offense to exploit match-ups. They made some hay in the first quarter but eventually those isolation points dried up in the second half.
Oh, yeah. And the Cavs played zero defense. Chalk up an easy 19 point win for the good guys.
Tonight, as the Blazers have been wont to do lately, Portland started the game slow and it seemed to be affecting everybody. In the first six minutes, Aldridge lost track of Love twice, Kaman got suckered into giving up easy post position to Mozgov twice, and Lillard was lazy getting over screens. Twice.
Three pointer, three pointer, layup, three pointer, three pointer and the Cavs had thirty at the end of the first. But you knew that the Blazers would wake up, stop making stupid mistakes, and all the Kyrie isolation ball would dry up eventually just like last time.
Only this time, two things were different. Lillard couldn't hit the broadside of a barn even if Kaman loaned him a harpoon gun and Kyrie was shooting fish in a barrel (55 points on 17/36 shooting).
The Blazers did what they always do when the guards are having an off night - throw it in to the big fella and get out of the way. It was clear the Cavs had no answer for Aldridge and you could almost see Cavs' coach David Blatt go through the Houston checklist of potential remedies.
"Hmm, Love can't guard Aldridge. He's getting to the rim every play. Maybe our other power forward? Where's Tristan Thompson?"
"No, that didn't work. How about our center?"
"Now he's just shooting over him. Ok, send the double team. Please don't reign fire down from the heavens of the three point line. Please...I just want to keep my job."
Someone must have been feeling merciful as the Portland perimeter players combined to shoot 7/25 from three. The Cavs still aren't a great defensive team but at least they have an apparent set of rules now. Every time they doubled Aldridge the other perimeter players would move towards the nearest shooter and the guy who doubled would rotate to the far corner. The Blazers tried to swing the ball for open threes but something about their timing is off because the ball always arrived late. It's been happening consistently and I can't figure out why but doubling Aldridge hasn't meant death for opposing teams like it did last year.
The Aldridge vs. Kyrie show turned up a notch in the fourth quarter as both teams made adjustments. Stotts put Batum on Kyrie (finally!) and his length bothered him for a bit. The Cavs doubled Aldridge harder than ever and literally every play was a competition between the Blazers passing and the Cavs rotating defenders.
With 3:51 left in the game, Wesley Mathews hit a big three to give the Blazers their first lead since the first quarter and it looked like the Blazers were going to escape once again. Put another notch in their comeback belt!
Here's the play by play for the rest of the Blazers' offense:
Damian Lillard misses jumper
LaMarcus Aldridge makes 7-foot two point shot
LaMarcus Aldridge misses 9-foot jumper
Wesley Matthews misses 26-foot three point jumper
Wesley Matthews misses 25-foot three point jumper
LaMarcus Aldridge makes two free throws
1/5 with two foul shots. Kyrie Irving would go 2/4 with two threes and four free throws himself. The Blazers had open looks off beautiful passing sequences or a strong Aldridge move to the middle. The Cavs had Kyrie Irving bombing from deep with a hand in his face.
You take those odds but sometimes it's just somebody else's night.
The lesson, repeated for the third time this week, is that they can't let games against inferior teams turn into coin flips at the end. If Portland takes care of business in the first three quarters, Kyrie doesn't have a chance to play the hero.
Oh me oh my. There is nothing left to be said about Aldridge other than ‘wowza'. That man was a beast tonight. He had 40% of the Blazers' points (34 points, 11 rebounds) and his influence led to every open shot his teammates got. It's still a fair question if he should be playing but Portland would have lost by 20 without him.
Lillard's watch must be broken because he's in a mini-slump that no one seems to be talking about. 4/19 tonight and shooting under 40% from the field and under 30% from behind the arc over the last ten games. Some of those games were with extra defensive pressure due to Aldridge's absence but he's back now and Portland needs it's two-headed monster if it wants to keep pace in the West.
Nicolas Batum is arguably fighting through a worse injury than Aldridge with the torn ligament coming in his shooting wrist. The fact that we really didn't know about the extent of the injury doesn't make it any less harmful. His shot looks better coming out of his hand but it's still not going in very often. He was pretty active tonight (7 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 0 turnovers) but his inability to score was a big reason why the Blazers couldn't make Cleveland pay for doubling Aldridge.
All the scrambling and passing had "Big We$ Night!" written all over it but he couldn't find the space or the touch shooting just 3/8 from deep and 4/10 overall. This game had you wanting a little bit more out of everyone not named LaMarcus and Wesley was no exception. Matthews had a chance to put up 20 points tonight and he couldn't do it.
No one else had a really impactful night. Kaman rebounded well (7 points, 13 boards) but the more I watch him start the more I miss Robin Lopez on both sides of the ball. Steve Blake wasn't bad but he wasn't good (2 points, 1 assist in 12 minutes) and nobody guards Will Barton. He scored once on a nice cut but his presence really mucks up the spacing in the half court.
Thomas Robinson, CJ McCollum, and Dorell Wright all played less than 10 minutes.
Nothing gets easier as the Blazers head to face the Atlanta Hawks - the hottest team in the league who actually have cheering fans attending their games now. Lopez and Joel Freeland can't come back soon enough.
Instant Recap with Post-Game reaction.
"Who needs Lebron when you've got Kyrie?", says no one over at Fear the Sword
After such a rough game, why not make yourself feel better by helping underprivileged youth attend Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns? It will replace that angry, sinking feeling that makes you want to curse and hit walls with a sense of community and purposefulness. It's easy to contribute tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here.