The Portland Trail Blazers picked up their biggest win of the season tonight at the snow-covered Moda Center, defeating the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers 102-86. Allen Crabbe scored 18 of his 24 in the first half to help the Blazers build an early lead, and then CJ McCollum salted the game away by scoring 21 of his 27 points in the second half.
While McCollum and Crabbe thrived on offense, the Blazers defense also excelled against one of the most potent teams in the NBA. The Blazers held the Cavs to just 86 points on a putrid 34.1 percent shooting - both season lows for a Portland opponent. Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love combined to shoot just 14-for-43 (32.5 percent). James did manage a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
“I’m really proud of our guys and how they competed. Defensively it was one of our best games and to do it against a team like Cleveland makes it even better,” said Head Coach Terry Stotts.
The Blazers led nearly the entire way, but Crabbe sparked the Blazers to their first big lead of the night when he hit his first shot with 4:30 to go in the first quarter to cut a three point Cavaliers lead down to one, 18-17.
Over the next 12 minutes, Crabbe would score another 16 points, including four 3-pointers, sparking a 30-12 Blazers run. A Crabbe triple with 4:43 left in the second would give the Blazers a 45-30 advantage - they never relinquished the lead the rest of the way.
Crabbe’s torrid first half was par for the course over the last several weeks. After a rough start to the season, Crabbe has been on a shooting spree hot enough to thaw out the entire Portland metro area - he has shot over 50 percent on 3-pointers since the start of December, and has 24 or more points in three of the last four games.
“I’m just staying aggressive. Teammates are finding me, I’m knocking down shots, moving well without the ball,” said Crabbe in a post-game interview with CSN’s Brooke Olzendam. “We’re doing a good job - our offense is really clicking right now. With the defense being the way it is, our offense is really clicking.”
Importantly, Crabbe has begun to show that he can do more than just hit open spot-up jumpers this season. Tonight he burned the Cavs in several different ways - including a driving floater in the key:
Offensive diversity from Crabbe will be a huge asset for the Blazers. He doesn’t necessarily need to create his own shot, but if he can effectively exploit defenders scrambling to adjust after drives by Damian Lillard, McCollum, or Evan Turner, it will add a tough-to-defend dynamism to the Blazers’ offense. His hot shooting has already gone a long way toward opening up the court and making the cold-shooting Meyers Leonard expendable. Seeing him make moves like this with no hesitation and total confidence should make Blazers fans giddy.
Once the Cavs adjusted and began to clamp down on Crabbe, McCollum emerged as the offensive hero in the second half. He hit his first four shots of the third quarter, scoring 10 points, and helped extend the Blazers 49-41 halftime lead to 61-48 mid-way through the third.
Like Crabbe, McCollum has been phenomenal for the Blazers since Christmas and leads the NBA in points per game in the 2017 calendar year (32.0). He finished with 27 tonight - a historic seventh consecutive game with 25 or more points.
CJ McCollum is the first Trail Blazer with 7 straight games of 25+ points in a single season since Clyde Drexler (9, Nov. 20-Dec. 6, 1987).— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) January 12, 2017
Once McCollum’s flurry ended, his teammates stretched out the Blazers lead to 18, 69-51. Ordinarily, James would lead a comeback surge for the Cavs, and he tried tonight, scoring a quick five points to cut the lead to 13 with 3:30 to go in the third. But on the next play solid defense from Evan Turner forced a James’ turnover and the Blazers never looked back.
The solid defense on James was a major story of the night for the Blazers. They assigned multiple players as primary defenders (e.g. Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner) and sent double teams when James penetrated. The Blazers were also aggressive at trying to knock the ball away from James or challenge him at the rim; Turner did get his hand caught in the cookie jar and foul in the act of a three at one point, but Portland’s seven first half blocks and James’ subpar shooting tell the story of a team that successfully bothered Cleveland’s superstar.
James’ teammates were unable to help take the pressure of their star. They shot a combined 7-for-25 (28 percent) on 3-pointers, despite being one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. Without any help from the perimeter, the Blazers were able to easily bottle up Cleveland’s offense. The Cavs did miss injured starting Shooting Guard J.R. Smith.
“We rotated well, we trapped some of the ball screens. Just trying to put pressure on Kyrie, Lebron, Love and try to make the other guys beat us,” said McCollum.
The aggressive Portland defense, predicated on trapping ballhandlers, disrupting passing lanes, and leveraging the length and versatility of Aminu, Turner, Crabbe, and Harkless has paid dividends in recent weeks. The Blazers have a defensive rating of 100.9 (no. 3 in the NBA), since playing Toronto on Dec. 26. Holding the Cavs, owners of the no. 5 ORTG in the league, to a mere 86 points is especially impressive.
Both the Blazers and Cavs were likely fatigued after Portland’s historic snow storm disrupted their travel plans last night. The Cavs’ flight from Salt Lake City did not arrive in Portland until about 2:30 am. But the Blazers had an even worse travel time - they flew from Los Angeles to Seattle, arriving at about 3:30 am, and then flew to Portland this afternoon. Rather than risk driving home in the snow, the team reserved the players rooms in the Benson Hotel for afternoon naps. Mason Plumlee said in the pre-game interview that he had slept for only four hours over the course of the ordeal.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that Damian Lillard has been barely mentioned in this recap. That’s because the Cavs did an excellent job of taking him entirely out of the game. Lillard finished was a non-factor for much of the night and finished with only 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
Al-Farouq Aminu was left WIDE open on the perimeter and delivered ...an 0-for-5 effort on triples. He made up for it with 12 rebounds and good defense. The poor shooting may haunt the Blazers down the road, but it didn’t matter tonight.
Moe Harkless also helped bother James and added 13 points and 5 rebounds. He had several major hustle plays that kept the Blazers’ energy up.
Evan Turner can pass the darn ball. He salvaged a woeful shooting night with 11(!) assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals off of King James. His passing is still sublime:
Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee were serviceable at center. For Plumlee: 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists; Davis finished with 3 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Second half of the season
Tonight’s win was, no doubt, massive for the Blazers. They were 0-8 before this game against the league’s top 5 teams and hadn’t won back-to-back games since Dec. 3 and Dec. 5.
Now they face two questions at the mid-way point of the season sitting on an 18-23 record:
- Will tonight’s victory carry over to future games? The Blazers have been a fickle bunch all season and failed to string together solid play over the course of multiple games. For every 131-109 win over Indiana, or 129-109 victory over Brooklyn, they have multiple blow-out losses to the Warriors, or miserable losses to sub-.500 teams like Dallas.
Tonight’s game played into the wheelhouse of the 2015-16 #they squad - their backs were up against a snow bank, the league put them into a miserable situation, and they had every reason to roll over and die. They responded tonight, but will they continue to respond on a Tuesday night in Dallas when the national spotlight is off and they are expected to win easily?
2. If the improved play continues, have they waited too long to turn their season around? The Blazers are one game ahead of their record from last season, but the west is also better than last season. If Utah, Memphis, and/or Oklahoma City win at only a .500 pace from here out the Blazers will still need 46 wins to get to out of the 8-seed and avoid a first round matchup with the Warriors. That will require at least a 28-13 record - a 56-win pace. One ray of hope: the Blazers still have seven games remaining against the three teams directly ahead of them in the standings, leaving the door open to make up serious ground if they win the majority of those contests.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado
Check out Fear the Sword to see how the Cavs respond to back-to-back losses.
Blazer’s Edge Kids Night
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