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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers Preview

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Portland ends its three-game road trip in Cleveland.

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Utah Jazz Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (19-17) at Cleveland Cavaliers (24-12)

Tuesday, January 2 - 4:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Damian Lillard (questionable)
Cavaliers injuries: Iman Shumpert (out), Derrick Rose (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA TV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Fear the Sword

One day after downing the Chicago Bulls in overtime, the Portland Trail Blazers will end their road trip against LeBron James and the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs, losers of three straight and four out of five, are hoping for a boost from star point guard Isaiah Thomas, who will make his Cavaliers debut against the Blazers.

What to Watch For

Is Lillard going to suit up? Damian Lillard says he’s playing against Cleveland, but fans will need to wait until he goes through pregame drills before they know for sure. One thing that can’t be questioned is Lillard’s importance to the offense, which has looked stagnant through long stretches in his absence.

The forwards will have their hands full. At 33 years of age, LeBron James is having one of the most efficient seasons of his career. At an age when many players start to decline, LeBron is still capable of bending the game to his will. He’s shooting the 3-ball at a 39 percent clip, averaging 28/8/9, and still able to get to the rim virtually at will. Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu are going to have to be dialed in at all times to try and contain King James.

Veteran tricks. The Cavs are stacked with vets that know how to play the game: Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith. While none of these guys outside of Love are performing at a very high level, any of them are capable of making a clutch play at a critical time to beat you.

What They’re Saying

Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times wrote about how Isaiah Thomas’ return will impact the Cavs going forward:

The excitement for Thomas’s return, both from players and fans, is palpable, especially after he finished last season with a career-high average of 28.9 points a game. But it will be an even bigger lift for the Cavaliers as a whole, as they have thus far been forced to use a rotating cast of players at point guard, including diminished veterans like Jose Calderon and Derrick Rose. LeBron James handles the ball a great deal, but play-by-play data compiled by Basketball-Reference.com does not have him logging any minutes at guard this season. Instead it has been Dwyane Wade, at 36, playing primarily at point guard for the first time since his rookie season — a significant downgrade from Irving last season.

There is no doubt that Thomas, once he gets back to full speed, will be a tremendous upgrade on offense from any of those options, but there is at least some ambiguity as to how much he can help the team because, to put it bluntly, the offense is not the problem in Cleveland.

Jeff Schudel of the Cleveland News-Herald writes about how the Cavs needed a makeover:

Coach Tyronn Lue had to find a way to make the new pieces fit the jigsaw puzzle. The Cavaliers started 5-7.

Lue never panicked. He kept juggling the lineup until he got one that worked, despite Rose playing in only seven games. The Cavaliers won 19 of 21 games before losing to Golden State and Sacramento in California on a road trip that began Christmas Day.

“It’s not the same team we’ve had over the last three years,” Lue said when things were rocky early in the season. “We have a lot of new faces, a lot of new pieces, a lot of guys out. Every night we step out on the floor, we have to be ready to play.

“We just have to have an aggressive mindset both offensively and defensively. We can’t just ease into games. We have to go into games attacking.”

Fans who still believe the Cavaliers should have tried to make things work out between James and Irving are wrong. There is no reason to believe a four-peat between the Cavaliers and Warriors would have ended any differently had the Cavs remained status quo. The Cavs beat the Warriors in the 2016 Finals, so the Warriors solved that problem by signing Kevin Durant.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com discusses how a lack of ball movement has hurt the Cavs of late:

"I think our body movement, our ball movement, probably hasn't been our best the last couple games," Kyle Korver told cleveland.com. "And when that second unit is doing well, there's tons of movement. The ball is hopping around. There's tons of screens and actions. The last couple of games we've kind of gotten away from that a little bit. We know we have to get back to it. We were talking about it after the game. We have to get to some of those sets that we were running before. Kind of get everybody going."

The Cavs are fifth in the NBA in assists per game at 23.8, and James is a big reason why (he's second in the NBA with 9.3 assists per game). But on Wednesday, James registered 14 of the Cavs' 19 total assists. And against the Warriors, he accounted for six of the team's 12 assists (Dwyane Wade contributed four).

Cleveland's bench normally averages seven assists per game. If James is the Cavs' primary ball handler (he is), then he can take some blame when his teammates' assists drop. It means he hasn't made the extra pass lately, or the pass that leads to an assist.

"We're out of rhythm," Wade said. "We had a flow going, we had a rhythm going, but then things changed a little bit."

Wade only took three shots Wednesday and scored five points. He said he needs to go back into the low post, where he can score or pass, more than he's been the last two games.