Damian Lillard returned to the Portland Trail Blazers starting lineup tonight following a five-game absence due to injury. As luck had it, he was just in the nick of time to face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. For three quarters Lillard and the Blazers gave a mighty effort, holding steady behind deadly strikes from Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum. But the fourth quarter proved fatal for the fading Blazers as Dwyane Wade gave Father Time a noogie, stepped off the bench, and poured in enough points to give the Cavaliers a 127-110 victory in what had once been a close game.
Portland Plays Well
The first-quarter testing-out process between the two teams boiled down to a matter of distance. Any shot taken within 20 feet of the hoop was going in, no matter what uniform the shooter wore. The outpouring of points from mid-range and in the paint accentuated a surprisingly spry start from Jusuf Nurkic, who got into gear before halftime for the first time in forever. Damian Lillard looked rusty on offense upon his return, but contented himself with a few jumpers and getting everybody else involved. Neither team could hit water from a boat beyond 20 feet, though. They still managed enough combined field goals to render a 28-28 score after one, largely without three-pointers and with reasonably few free throws.
The story inverted in the second period for the Cavaliers, as Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, and company got cranking from outside. But Portland’s second unit—the starters as well upon their return—read the tea leaves and stiffened the interior defense. Cleveland got open lanes but couldn’t convert near the rim anymore. Meanwhile the Blazers went cold from the field, depending upon a pair of three-pointers from Lillard and two more from CJ McCollum to keep them moving. Those extra points made a huge difference. When Lillard’s second triple splashed through at the 2:30 mark, the Blazers owned a 56-46 lead. Jae Crowder hit a three and a layup in the closing 90 seconds to narrow the gap, but Portland still took a 56-53 lead into the half. They looked inspired. Both their defense and the score reflected it.
Here Comes Trouble
In the third period, Cleveland began exploiting their mismatches. Portland had trouble guarding Crowder outside with bigger players and LeBron inside with smaller ones. They compensated with Lillard shooting deep and aggressively off of screens, as McCollum rode shotgun hitting jumpers as well.
As the period wound on, a few things became apparent:
- The Cavaliers were getting higher-percentage shots overall.
- Those shots were coming from different positions and players, while Portland had to ride their top two guys.
- The Blazers played in an overtime game last night and were starting to wind down just as Cleveland was ready to pick up. Rebounding and defense both started to edge towards the Cavaliers and they weren’t coming back.
Go Ahead and Wade In
Cleveland led only 91-87 heading into the fourth, but the footsteps of doom were sounding (suspiciously like Dwyane Wade sneaker squeaks, actually). Like Raven ripping off her cloak to become Lady Legasus and dominate the world, the octogenarian showed off his best escape moves, stepping away from and dribbling around defenders to find open shots and passing lanes. Already beleaguered and befuddled, the Blazers simply had no answer for Wade. They fell apart during a 36-23 final period and ended up losing a fairly pretty game by an unsightly 17-point deficit.
Few Surprises, Few Regrets
The results of this game are hardly shocking. The Cavaliers and Blazers play in the same league, but in different levels of the stratosphere. Portland having trouble with James (10-17, 24 points) is hardly news. Cleveland being able to exploit Portland’s defensive weaknesses and residual fatigue are not surprising either. For most of the game, the Blazers gave top-notch effort. Translated into contests against the Atlanta Hawks or pretty much any home game over the last month, their passion would have rendered an easy win. The problem with turning it on against the best teams in the league is that they’re the best teams. LeBron James has seen your fireworks. They fly over his castle every night. He still rules there; that’s why he’s the king.
Jusuf Nurkic deserves big credit for stepping up in this game, doing most everything that could have been asked. (And probably has been asked up until now but wasn’t forthcoming...) Nurk turned in a 10-12 shooting night, getting far more good looks in the post than usual. He scored 23 with 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Lillard notched 25 in his return, shooting 6-9 from distance. McCollum added 19, shooting 50% from the arc himself. Evan Turner looked comfortable once again back in Eastern Conference territory. He had trouble handling LeBron down low but shot 7-14 for 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists.
The problem came everywhere else. Outside of garbage time, nobody else scored. Al-Farouq Aminu shot 1-7 for 5 points. Pat Connaughton shot 1-4, Moe Harkless 1-6, Shabazz Napier 0-5. Portland’s non-garbage-time bench players and Aminu combined for a total of 18 points. Isaiah Thomas scored 17 by himself. Throw in Wade with 15, Jeff Green with 10, 17 for Jae Crowder, 19 for Kevin Love...you get the idea. Portland’s firepower wasn’t great enough, nor their defense strong enough, and that was the ballgame.
But once more, though Portland has posted wretched losses this year, this was not one to hang heads about. The team played well and played hard. That they do not do this every night is certainly a flaw, but for one night, they actually did it right and looked good in the process.
Onward, and a Goodbye
The Blazers get a chance to avenge themselves against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.
Please, can you help us send kids in need to see the Blazers play on February 27th? We’ve got less than a month to go in ticket donations and we need over 700 more tickets to say “Yes!” to the people who have already asked us if their kids could go. Donating is easy, just read right here:
Finally, Blazer’s Edge would like to bid farewell to long-time editor Chris Lucia (@ChrisLuciaPDX ). Chris has been with us over 5 years and during that time has helped develop many of the systems you see today, including our podcast and social media presence, features, and game previews. Behind the scenes he’s helped writers develop their content and presentation chops, plus he’s been our resident stickler for grammar. Chris been amazing and we would not be the same site without him. We wish him well in all his endeavors and invite you to do so as well. Blessings, Chris! And thank you.