Fans had every reason to skip tonight’s matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers from Quicken Loans Arena. The Blazers, who have looked lifeless for most of the season, were finishing up a five-game east coast road trip the night before Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Lebron James and the Cavs had been resting since Friday. It had all the signs of a perfunctory loss for the Blazers.
But those who did tune in were treated to some out-of-season, July 4- worthy fireworks as Kevin Love exploded for 34 points and eight three-pointers in the first quarter, and helped the Cavs cruise to a 137-125 victory. Lebron James assisted (literally) on many of Love’s baskets, and finished with 31 points 10 rebounds, 13 assists, and 3 steals. Not to be outdone, Damian Lillard poured in 30 points in the second half for a total of 40 points, 7 rebounds, and 11 assists for the Blazers.
Love beat the stuffing out of the Blazers in the early going, regularly drilling wide open threes throughout the period on his way to a record for most points in a first quarter in NBA history. Unfortunately for Portland, Love was not the only hot Cleveland player – the Cavs shot a blistering 67 percent from the field in the first and finished with 46 points. The Blazers looked solid on offense, as well, scoring 31 points in the frame …only three less than Love!
Kevin Love set an NBA record for points in a 1st quarter w/ 34. The NBA record for most points (any quarter) is 37 - Klay Thompson, 1/23/15 pic.twitter.com/8IoFnw9tyG— NBA History (@NBAHistory) November 24, 2016
To their credit, the Blazers did not let Love’s record-smashing performance turn them into turkeys in the second quarter. The Blazers bench unit came out strong to start the frame and forced the Cavs into some missed shots and poor decisions. When CJ McCollum froze Lebron James with a fake pass and finished with a lay-up the lead was cut to 51-42 with 8:45 left in the quarter.
Unfortunately, James responded immediately by going coast to coast and converting an and-1 bucket on the next play. From there, one-time Blazer Channing Frye took over for Love by hitting four three-pointers in the quarter as the Cavs cruised to an 81(!!)-60 halftime advantage.
The Blazers went back to their superstar Damian Lillard in the second half to try to close the gap. Lillard played heroically, scoring 30 points in the half and helped the Blazers cut the lead to 11 on a couple occasions. But the 21 point gap proved too large for Lillard to overcome – James and company had no problem responding to every Portland rally with easy baskets of their own. When the dust had settled, Cleveland had hung on for a deceptively huge 137-125 victory.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this one: Terry Stotts’ face will be cranberry sauce-red when he reviews the first half defense on the plane tonight. Love did hit several contested jump shots, but the majority of his baskets came on straight-up blown assignments. At times, none of the Blazers even picked Love up as he crossed the half-court line!:
This has been an ongoing trend for the Blazers so far this season; several of their players are decent as one-on-one defenders, but the second the opposition forces any kind of rotation the Blazers become as mushy as overcooked green bean casserole.
Tonight, much of the early blame falls on Mason Plumlee who failed to track Love on the perimeter, even after the Lake Oswego native had drilled multiple jumpers. This is especially frustrating because Plumlee’s athleticism should suit him to running after stretch-4s on the perimeter, even if his rim-protecting ability is subpar. Not tonight!
Meyers Leonard picked up the bad defense baton from Plumlee in the second quarter as he regularly slumped too far off Frye, leading to multiple wide open three-pointers. Unlike Plumlee, Leonard isn’t particularly suited to chase stretch-4s, so it was not a surprise when Stotts left him on the bench in the second half.
With the poor Blazers defense acknowledged, a super-sized serving of mashed potatoes should be heaped on James’ plate for his performance tonight. Tellingly, the four-time MVP picked up five assists before he even attempted a shot – his playmaking is at an all-time high and his ability to exploit defenses makes him as offensively scary as he has ever been:
Turner and Moe Harkless did their best to contain James, and even bested him in occasional one-on-one situations, but ultimately James was able to bulldoze his way to the bucket to stifle out any Blazer runs. Somehow, his triple-double stat line probably undersells how dominant he was tonight.
With Love, Frye, and James all clicking, Kyrie Irving’s 20 points on 15 mostly well-defended shots, several of which kept the Blazers at bay in the third, were pure gravy for the Cavs.
On the other side of the ball, Lillard’s offensive performance was sweeter than pumpkin pie with an entire can of whipped cream. The Cavs sold out to stop Lillard by doubling teaming him on every pick and roll.
It didn’t matter.
Lillard repeatedly found Mason Plumlee or Ed Davis diving to the lane in the void left by the Cavs defense. Plumlee’s 19 points on 10 shots had as much to do with his energy as it did with Lillard’s playmaking early in the game. The result: Lillard finished the game with 11 assists – four more than his previous season high.
When the second half started, Lillard did his best to shoot the Blazers back into the game. He drove relentlessly to the basket and drilled several long triples, including another from “the logo” to keep the Blazers within striking distance for longer than they had any right to be. Ultimately his 25 second half points did not amount to a win, but Blazers fans should be happy to see Lillard and the Blazers fighting and clawing rather than rolling over.
Lillard’s dominance rubbed off on several of his teammates. Evan Turner continued a mini-stretch of solid play, finishing with 17 points on 7-13 shooting despite spending a good portion of the game tracking James defensively. As a whole, the Blazers entire second unit is starting to look more cohesive, with Leonard, Turner, and Davis all starting to find their spots in the offense.
For the first time all season Damian Lillard’s skills as a distributor were on display and it paid dividends with the Blazers shooting over 50 percent from the field (47-90). His presence has begun to suck defenses out of the key, opening up the floor for drives from Lillard and dives from teammates. The result tonight was a 56-40 win in points in the paint for the Blazers – you can probably thank Lillard for 50 of those.
Evan Turner is slowly finding his niche. He one-upped his play against the Knicks last night and put on another “best night of the season” on his way to 17 points. He’s still hesitant at times, which can cause the ball to stick, and he could cut to the rim more often a la Will Barton or Moe Harkless.
Mason Plumlee took full advantage of Lillard’s gravitational pull tonight to act as a secondary scorer and playmaker. If defenses continue to double Lillard hard on the pick and roll, fans can expect more big offensive nights from Plumlee. That said, his ‘efense on Love was a massive problem.
CJ McCollum did not respond as well as Lillard when the Cavs blitzed him. Games like this should put to bed any premature “could CJ be catching up to Dame?” conversations. True to form, he did have some impressive ballhandling moments – Lamar Hurd explains how he freezes James with a fake pass to Leonard on this one:
As the above video demonstrates, Meyers Leonard can be a major asset on offense for the Blazers. But when he gets torched by Channing Frye on simple defensive recoveries it’s tough to leave him in the game. One wonders if Leonard will only be two-way effective when he can defensively anchor against true centers like DeMarcus Cousins or Marc Gasol.
Ed Davis was slightly outplayed by his basketball-doppelganger Tristan Thompson, but this was not a game that favored either player’s strengths.
Moe Harkless was the most active Blazer on defense, again, getting his hands on several passes and doing his best to hang with Lebron James. He also scored 11 points despite going only 1-5 from three. The fact that he is somehow the Blazers’ third best player, despite an incredibly limited offensive game, is probably the most impressive feat for this franchise since Andre Miller scored 52.
After the first quarter ended, this game boiled down to a Lebron vs. Dame battle. Unfortunately, the Blazers spotted Lebron 15 points to start the game, nullifying any attempts at heroics from Lillard. Blazers fans, however, can take heart that the team repeatedly tried to claw their way back into the game tonight. A welcome sign after several games of seeming indifference in the face of adversity.
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com