When the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers met at Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers had everything on their side: homecourt advantage, championship aspirations, a winning record, and a best-in-his-lifetime League MVP suiting up for them. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Blazers sported a couple of high-scoring guards and a puncher's chance. That relatively small arsenal almost proved enough to carry Portland to the victory. The Blazers kept the Cavaliers on the ropes through the entire first half before LeBron James and his mates shook off their doldrums and pounded their way to a 105-100 win in a game that, if not entirely satisfying, was at least hard-fought.
It took roughly 30 seconds of play to see that the Cavaliers came ready to give 150% on the defensive end tonight. Seriously...that's the shooting percentage they allowed the Blazers through the first two quarters. 150%. And we're rounding down. Whether coming off screens, driving the lane, or hitting NASTY pull-up three-pointers over slouching defenders, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum brutalized the jammie-wearing Cavs like monsters from the closet. Portland's spacing and passing were impeccable, their defense nearly so. The Blazers packed the lane, sending help during post plays and channeling drivers into double- and triple-teams. Cleveland couldn't hit enough jumpers to keep up.
During the first 20 minutes of the half, LeBron made life easy on Portland defenders, playing his typical, "Let's see what my teammates can do" style. The answer was "nothing". Portland took a 19-6 lead to begin the game and cruised to a 47-29 advantage with 4:30 remaining in the second. James finally woke up during the last 4 minutes and brought his team within 56-47 at halftime.
The Cavs were having none of that when play resumed. James came out of the locker room fired up, taking the ball to the hole a couple of times early. Portland appeared to get nervous, then they doubled-down on their inside coverage. The arc opened up for Cleveland, the Cavs hit a shot or two, and all of a sudden Cleveland's offense was firing on all cylinders. They put the squeeze on Portland defensively as well, forcing 8 turnovers in the third period. As their lead melted, then turned toxic, then got shoved down their throats with a turkey baster, Portland's energy flagged. But renewed offense from Lillard, McCollum, and Allen Crabbe kept them within 1, 75-76, after three.
The Blazers never regained their defensive mojo in the fourth. Cleveland reprised their third-period performance, taking the lane early and often then hitting even more three-pointers. With the game in the balance King James and Lillard engaged in a Scott-Pilgrim-like scoring duel, each pouring in a dozen points in the quarter. But Cleveland showed superior defense and energy, escaping with the 105-100 win.
The Cavaliers certainly didn't play like a championship team in the first half. Meanwhile the Blazers played like a team with nothing to lose. For two full quarters Portland ran sets against crash-test dummies instead of live bodies and the carnage was impressive.
That the Blazers had no answer for James in the second half is hardly surprising. The ease with which Cleveland took them out of their offense was slightly more so. A little bit of pressure was enough to cause Portland to crumble. This was less a matter of will than fatigue and inexperience. Whether the cause was lack of energy or know-how, the dam broke and the Blazers couldn't fix it.
Losing the turnover battle 18-8 after a near-perfect first half tells everything you need to know about Portland's composure issues. Cleveland also ended up matching the Blazers' incredible offensive output, with each team shooting an identical 40-79 from the field for the game and both hovering in the 42% range on threes. Glass half full: Portland hung with one of the best teams in the league, matching them blow for blow. Glass half empty: the numbers were lopsided in Portland's favor at the half and that didn't end up mattering one bit.
Despite the ups and downs, the Blazers prospered when LeBron played in a haze and faltered when he started to dominate. That's pretty much what you'd expect. It amounted to an "L", but at least they looked decent earning it. For a team at Portland's level, making the Cavs worry a little (and celebrate beating you) is an accomplishment in itself.
Damian Lillard was a deli slicer tonight, the Cavaliers a huge loaf of lunch meat. LeBron scored 33 on 14-24 shooting, 1-3 from the arc, with 10 rebounds and 3 assists. Lillard scored 33 on 14-27 shooting, 4-9 from distance, with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Who was more dominant? Answer: on the offensive end, neither. This was one of Lillard's best games of the season...vintage Dame Time ball extended over 40 minutes. Had Blazers Broadcasting announcers Mike Barrett and Mike Rice spent the entire game tossing peanuts into the stands, every one of them would have fallen into an open mouth.
CJ McCollum was hardly less impressive, shooting 10-19, 4-8 from the field, for 24 points with 5 assists.
I'm sure someone on our crack staff will check on it, but this is probably the first time all season that the Blazers have lost with their starting guards shooting nearly 50% from the field and arc, combining for 50+ points. Only LeBron could make that happen.
Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh got gobbled up on the defensive end. It wasn't a prime game for either. Portland could have used more offensive rebound from all of their bigs to tip the balance. Al-Farouq Aminu struggled as well, but he had to guard The King, so he's forgiven.
Allen Crabbe shot 6-11, continuing his Streak of Ultimate Smoothness. Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis played hard enough, but ended up in neutral. Moe Harkless played 20 minutes but might as well have been on the back of a milk carton.
Links and Notes
It'll be interesting to see how much Fear The Sword talks about Lillard's night. It compared favorably to top-form Kyrie Irving.
The Blazers get a couple welcome days off before facing the Phoenix Suns in Arizona on Friday night at 6:30 Pacific.
Listen to the latest Blazer's Edge Podcast here. We praise Allen Crabbe and Ed Davis for their contributions, going so far as to say we're more impressed with them than McCollum in some ways. (Sacrilege!)
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