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10 Take-Aways from Trail Blazers-Cavaliers

What went right and wrong in Portland’s 107-104 loss in Cleveland.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, it might be fair to ask which will happen first: the Portland Trail Blazers getting a road win or Spongebob Squarepants earning his boating license. Like Mrs. Puff staring at her polygonal nemesis, Blazers fans might be excused for moaning, “Why, Damebob? WHYYYY???” before exploding into frustrated tears at yet another fourth-quarter rally smashing against the wall of subpar shooting and shoddy interior defense.

If you want a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of Portland’s 107-104 defeat, you can find it in our instant recap. Here’s the extended analysis of what went right and wrong in the contest.

Dame Out the Gate and Late

After a week’s worth of talk about his shooting slump crammed into 48 hours, Damian Lillard came into this game yelling, “I’m ready! I’m ready!” Lillard opened the contest with an assist to Robert Covington, followed a couple minutes later by a step-back three of his own. That began a period in which he would take 8 shots, showing more early scoring aggression than he has all year.

That would carry over. Lillard ended up taking 27 shot attempts in this game, a season-high. The bad news: he only made 10. The good news: he scored 26, a not-insignificant tally. More good news: he hit a pair of threes and an “and-one” layup in the fourth to help his team battle back from a deficit, putting them in position to tie the game on the final shot. More bad news: he missed that final attempt and it wasn’t close.

The final verdict: this looked like Dame playing in a game shaped for Dame, but it was more of a “Frankendoodle” version of the all-franchise superstar. He looked familiar, scoring 26 with 8 assists, but neither the defense nor the production ended up rewriting the story.

Where’s the “D”?

The Blazers played defense in this game like Squidward plays clarinet. It made you want to cover your ears and run.

Portland achieved one goal that they failed in Philadelphia a couple nights ago. They got up 90 shots, compared to only 74 for Cleveland. That’s old-school Portland: if you can’t make a high percentage, make up for it with volume.

The Cavs went the other way, substituting quality shots for quantity. And boy did they succeed. Despite getting up 16 fewer attempts, the Cavs had only one less made field goal than the Blazers did. They put up 7 fewer threes but actually converted 2 more than Portland.

Portland allowed Cleveland to shoot 52.7% from the field, 50.0% from the arc, and generated no advantage in free throw attempts in this game. There must be some kind of theoretical math world in which those numbers add up to a win, but in the real world, that’s probably not going to happen.

The Blazers were pretty lucky to have lost only by 3. It took a bit of collapse by Cleveland—and all the defense that Portland finally decided to muster—just to get it that close.

Technique Needs Work

Remember those glorious screens that typified Portland’s offense in the first games of the season? Back then, they were setting and using them with all the precision of Sandy Squirrel practicing Kah-ra-TAY. In this game, they looked more like Spongebob trying to ambush her.

The centers set screens pretty well, but the big forwards didn’t. It hardly mattered, because the guards weren’t using them either way. They went too soon or dribbled wide around them. It became a useless exercise.

Fatigue may have something to do with this, but dang, if the Blazers don’t do the little things right in a process that’s both basic and a key to their offense, big things aren’t going to go well for them. They have to get to the point where, even when they’re tired, they automatically employ good technique, every bit as much as they do with their jump shots or free throws.

Point(-less) of Attack

Back to the defense for a minute... As has become their habit, the Blazers chased their counterparts around the floor like Plankton pursuing the Krabby Patty secret formula. As we’ve seen, they had just about as much success. Ricky Rubio and the unselfish Cavaliers passed around them for 29 assists on 39 made buckets. It didn’t look hard for them either.

My initial reaction to this phenomenon was that they should be more measured. Watching this game, I wasn’t entirely sure. Whenever they stayed home, they got burned.

While the Blazers have really good help defenders in Covington, Larry Nance, Jr., and Jusuf Nurkic, none of them are straight-up stopping opponents right now. Obviously Lillard and CJ McCollum aren’t either. There’s always someone to help, but that’s cold comfort when any reasonable scorer can take advantage of any given one-on-one matchup.

Cody Zeller, and to some extent Nassir Little, have been exceptions to the rule. But Little played only 11 minutes tonight and Zeller 14. Neither one of them will be able to anchor the defense with everything whirling in chaos behind them either.

If anybody is going to step up and provide a stopping point for this mess—which means committing to stopping the player in front of them—now would be a good time.

Second Unit Sags

Portland’s second unit played with their typical “turbo boost” verve in the initial shift, but like the Krusty Krab’s ill-fated venture into pizza delivery, it ended up in an exhausting, trackless desert with no positive outcome in sight. Cleveland was just too good passing, and the assignments the bench defenders missed too plentiful. The Blazers have gotten used to a boost from their reserves. Instead they ran up a tab that the starters couldn’t pay.

Also of note: the entire bench combined didn’t shoot as many shots as Lillard or McCollum individually tonight. Anfernee Simons came through off the pines, but he was virtually alone.

Chauncey Billups didn’t play his reserves as much, which may account for some of the scoring drought. The ball just wasn’t moving to the bigger players in scoring position, though, and that made Portland’s attack a bit more predictable.

CJ Up and Down

CJ McCollum has been so money this season that Mr. Krabs has been stalking him with greedy eyes and rubbing claws. Tonight he shot only 7-19 from the field but scored 21, courtesy of 4 made threes in 9 attempts.

Even so, this was a game CJ had to shoot himself into. At the start of the game, he looked a little choppy. It was evident that the Cavs had marked his progress and were ready to give him due defensive respect. Eventually McCollum got where he wanted to go, but it took a lot of time and a lot of shots.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s often what Damian Lillard does. Fair enough. High-scoring guards have that privilege. When both guards need to do it, though? That’s a lot of ramp-up time.

Honestly, that’s what it’s starting to feel like. The Blazers are essentially fielding one-and-a-half Damian Lillards in their starting backcourt. And the half-Lillard is the actual one.

Even though CJ topped 20 with 6 assists and 7 rebounds while Dame posted 26, 8, and 3, the production didn’t feel like that impactful. The ups kept the team afloat, but didn’t save them. The downs dragged them towards the bottom.

Stuck in the Middle with You

One sign that the Blazers’ defense was flagging tonight: the Cavs’ shot chart reveals a lot of makes in the stripe extending from the key out to the top of the three-point arc. Portland’s defense is predicated on stopping shots in the middle of the floor. They’re actually willing to give up more open sideline looks to make sure nobody gets a straight-on look at the basket. Tonight that middle area might as well have been Goo Lagoon for all Portland’s defense was accomplishing there. The Cavs drown them in easy shots exactly where Cleveland wanted and Portland didn’t.

Whatever the game plan is supposed to be, the Blazers are executing it like Patrick Star doing trigonometry. The pencil is moving. He’s saying, “Ta-DAH!” That answer ain’t right tho.

Norman Powell Makes Good

Norman Powell continues to stand out like a fresh-made Krabby Patty. He had 23 tonight on 9-16 shooting. His fellow guards actually turned over the offense to him during stretches of the second and third quarters. He might have made a bigger difference in the fourth too, except he got zero shot attempts in that period.

Powell is one of the few Blazers marrying defensive energy to offensive production. He had 3 steals, 2 blocks, and while nobody actually stopped their Cleveland counterparts tonight, he at least made their looks a little tougher.

Anfernee Simons Goes Big Again

Anfernee Simons once again played Larry the Lobster off the bench, hitting 6-11 shots, scoring 15. Coach Billups is starting to use Simons in crunch time, where he joins the rest of Portland’s guards, trying to generate offense and hoping their defense doesn’t render the point moot. If you want points right now, Simons is your man.

Blazers Evoking Indifference

If the Blazers had designs on earning Michelin stars for their performance this season, those plans are rapidly disappearing. With their second loss in a row to a team missing major components, they’ve now devolved past Weenie Hut level and are encroaching upon Weenie Hut Jr. territory.

It’s not like they’re failing to click. They’re not giving up, either. It just feels like the substance of their success is so thin right now that even when they stretch it out over a few plays, or most of a quarter, the opponent can punch right through with a little sharp execution.

The team doesn’t look awful as much as...unproductive? It’s like all the effort they throw in is going into some kind of Chum-on-a-Stick appetizer. Even if it were good, it’s not big enough. That it’s not good makes it even harder to swallow.

Since Marlow Ferguson made a wrestling reference in the instant recap, I’ll add one here. Being a really strong babyface hero is good. Evoking some kind of evil heel heat is ok as well. At least you’re doing something. Either is acceptable. Going out there and executing your best moves to a tepid symphony of coughs and popcorn munching is a bad thing.

That’s pretty much where the Blazers are right now. They’re not good. They’re not even bad in ways that you can say, “Right THERE is the problem!” There’s just an overall malaise covering their work. They feel like The Patriot tabbed to wrestle Bret Hart. It’s not just that they’re losing. You’re just kind of wondering why you’re watching this in the first place.

Obviously Portland has more talent and a higher ceiling than this. They need to clarify direction and pull together for more than just a game or two. It’s hard to remember, let alone credit, spectacular blowout wins against the Suns and Clippers when they repeatedly trip over their own bootlaces trying to get to the ring a week later.

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The Blazers return from their road trip Friday night, welcoming the Indiana Pacers to the Moda Center at 7:00 PM, Pacific.