The Portland Trail Blazers’ already-sketchy season hit a new low tonight as they fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers 110-104. Even playing without starting center Hassan Whiteside, the Blazers were hoping to pick up a win against one of the NBA’s worst teams to buoy their flagging record. Instead they might have hearkened to the old maxim from Rounders: If you can’t spot the sucker at the table by the second quarter, then you are the sucker at the table. Cleveland looked quicker, more coherent, and more aggressive all night long, sending Portland to an wholly-unexpected 5-12 start to the year.
The game started with a simple concept. The Blazers wanted to play quick with their guards shooting or penetrating. The Cavaliers wanted to go big. Tristan Thompson played Inspector Gadget, scoring, screening, and grabbing rebounds. That gave Cleveland a confidence at the outset that they never relinquished. The teams went back and forth through the period, each with moderate success. As most teams do, the Cavaliers defended Damian Lillard with an extra man within 30 feet of the hoop. Portland’s scoring was muted accordingly. They managed to control turnovers better than the Cavs, which saved their bacon from a poor quarter. The score was tied at 19 after one.
The second quarter started with Jordan Clarkson setting the floor on fire from three. The Cavaliers stormed to a 32-24 lead, but the Blazers stormed right back. Cleveland employed the “Lillard” defense on CJ McCollum, but McCollum’s court-mates were apt hitting shots against the spread and scrambling “D”.
Lack of interior defense continued to plague the Blazers as the half wound down. Portland ended up relying on the jump shot as Cleveland drove or pounded it in. The Blazers couldn’t harry the passing lanes and couldn’t threaten shots at the rim. Intermission saw Lillard with just one made field goal and the Blazers down 49-42.
The Cavaliers started the third quarter mixing layups with threes, extending to a 61-49 lead. Portland’s defense was three steps slow and thoroughly fractured. Every once in a while you’d get a reminder that Cleveland is a bad team. They’d miss an easy layup or a wide-open shot. They were still looking pretty comfortable.
Deeper shots from Lillard and McCollum, plus a couple inside strikes from Carmelo Anthony, brought Portland back. It seemed like they were playing trump cards early in the half just to stay alive instead of down the stretch to secure a victory. Skal Labissere came through in the latter minutes of the quarter, catching in the paint and converting. Portland’s defense never closed the scoring leak, though. Clarkson hit a buzzer-beating three over Lillard to keep Cleveland’s lead at 7, 76-69.
McCollum continued his scoring roll going early in the fourth, keeping hope alive for his team. He played right through the early fourth, coupling with Anfernee Simons in a shooting frenzy. Lillard took over when he checked in, hitting a trio of layups plus a deep three. It only availed to bring the Blazers within 5. The Cavs continued to score as Lillard began to tire. When Dame’s shots started to miss and the best alternative for Portland was...wait for it...fourth-quarter Carmelo Anthony, the Blazers’ fate was sealed.
Portland only did two things wrong on defense tonight: they couldn’t defend the rim and they couldn’t defend the arc. It was a modern analytics nightmare and the opposite of everything Head Coach Terry Stotts has dreamed of. The Cavaliers only shot 32.3% from the arc, but don’t let that fool you. They were scary open. Add in 50 points in the paint and this was a disaster.
You wouldn’t think that it could get any worse, but it does. Cleveland attempted 32 free throws to only 16 from Portland. The Blazers going -14 from the charity strip sure didn’t help.
Damian Lillard played in this game despite reports of ongoing back spasms, presumably to ensure a win. It didn’t work. Lillard looked slow, ground-bound, and shot 7-20 from the floor for 23 points. He was saved by a 4-9 clip from the arc.
Want to know the problem with bad defense and no support? Check out the leading scorers for each team. Lillard had 23, McCollum 20. Meanwhile Clarkson scored 28 for Cleveland and Thompson 25. Not only did the high-scoring backcourt not dominate, they fell 10 short of the opponents’ scoring duo. When you aren’t defending and the next-highest scorers on your team didn’t top 11 points, that’s not a survivable outcome.
(P.S. The Cavs were playing without Kevin Love.)
The Blazers face the Chicago Bulls at 5:00, Pacific on Monday. The Bulls are 6-11, so you’d think that game would be winnable. You would have thought that tonight too, though...