The Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers met on Friday night as two teams going in opposite directions. The Blazers entered the season with high expectations and have failed to meet them. The Cavaliers came into the year with almost none, yet have become one of the NBA’s brightest, and most surprising, stories. Portland features one of the smallest lineups in the league, the Cavaliers the biggest...you get the idea.
As it turns out, the two divergent teams were fairly equally matched, engaging in a nip-and-tuck battle that saw the Cavaliers retain the lead, but not by much. A fourth-quarter flurry from Cedi Osman and Jarrett Allen put the Blazers out 114-101, but the overall effort was one of the better we’ve seen in the absence of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
If you missed the action, you can read our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Once you’ve perused that, here’s the rest of the story.
This game featured a titanic battle between the centers on each side. In one corner stood Jusuf Nurkic, wide and skilled. In the other Jarrett Allen, lanky and springy. Nurkic held his own, mostly by making good use of his bulk. On offense, he’d put his body against Allen in the post, then spin for effective hooks or slipping layups. Nurk didn’t exactly contain Allen on the other end, but he did slow him down. He’d stall Cleveland’s center in the lane, allowing help to descend and strip the ball when Allen tried to make a move. Allen’s trademark lob plays were also absent for much of the evening.
The balance tipped late in the game as Nurkic began to tire. Allen dominated the fourth quarter while Nurk all but disappeared. It was still a decent showing for Portland’s big man against a tough opponent.
Nurkic finished the game with 14 points on 5-14 shooting and 12 rebounds. Allen countered with 13 points on 5-6 shooting and 13 boards. Watching the matchup made the game fun, regardless of outcome...a reminder that NBA basketball is seldom boring.
Cody Zeller saw action for the first time in a month, returning from COVID protocols and a knee injury. His help was welcome against the tall Cavaliers lineup. He clogged the lane a little, grabbed rebounds on the defensive end, and threatened same on offense. Mostly it was nice seeing the Blazers able to field a player taller than 6’7 in the middle minutes of the game.
Zeller played 12 minutes, hit 3-5 shots, grabbed 4 rebounds, and scored 6.
Rajon Rondo made his debut for the Cavaliers tonight. It’s not like he revolutionized his new team, but you could see his eyes light up when he took the floor. His veteran vision read Portland’s defense like a kiddie book. He dished assists like candy. He also found the seams in Portland’s perimeter coverage. playing against type by hitting open threes. Rondo finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 dimes, most of which were gained in his first shift. He shot himself out of the action as the game continued, but still, for a second he looked great.
Portland faced potential mismatches at several positions, but they had one relative advantage against Cleveland. The Cavs are big, but not particularly fast. If you can’t move around the Blazers defense, it looks much better. This game looked a little like the Blazers running coverages at 75%, practice speed. Help arrived on time instead of late. Close-outs got marginally closer. Saying Portland was effective on “D” would be a stretch, but they looked better, at least for the first two-thirds of the action. Everything fell apart late, but this was really one of the more encouraging games we’ve seen them play on the defensive end of the court.
That assessment did not necessarily extend to Evan Mobley when the Blazers guarded him. He finished the game with 18 points on 7-14 shooting, plus 8 rebounds and 3 assists. He was a walking mismatch all night. Portland was reduced to fouling him or denying the ball. When they didn’t, his moves and shots looked good. He missed some good looks, but that was more a matter of fate or some kind of weird gravity shift than anything Portland did. If he had put in a truly big night, Portland would never have gotten close.
Anfernee Simons tried sporadically to save the Blazers in Lillard-esque fashion tonight, but it didn’t really work. He finished with 14 points on 6-15 shooting, 2-8 from distance.
But when all else failed, Robert Covington kept the Blazers in this game with HIS incredible three-point shooting. He got on a roll in the middle of the game and never let up. He finished 5-8 from the arc, pouring in 17 total points. Every bucket made a difference too. With Covington embroiled in a season-long struggle, it was good to see him return to amazing shooting form.
Dennis Smith, Jr. In Tune
Dennis Smith, Jr. had a pep in his step tonight, perhaps because of the news that the Blazers guaranteed his contract for the rest of the season today. He played free and easy, looking for his shot in a manner reminiscent of the preseason form that earned him his position. He scored 10 on 4-8 shooting with 4 assists in 17 minutes.
Cedi Osman Saves the Day
It’s a good bet that, before tonight, Blazers fans didn’t know Cedi Osman from Donny or Haley Joel. They do now. With the game tight and Cleveland faltering, Osman hit four three-pointers in the fourth period, shooting his team past the Blazers to victory. Take away two of those shots and the Blazers have a decent chance to win it. Osman’s long balls and Allen’s rebounding saved the game for the Cavs.
Though the Cavaliers had the upper hand in most categories, the Blazers dominated them on the offensive glass, netting 16 O-rebounds for 21 second-chance points. That wasn’t easy when they were out-sized on the frontline. Again, regardless of outcome, credit the effort in this one.
The Blazers draw a much different kind of opponent, the Sacramento Kings, in a 6:00 PM, Pacific start on Sunday night.