On the eve of Thanksgiving, the Cleveland Cavaliers sent the Portland Trail Blazers home with a bad taste in their mouth, serving up a bitter 114-96 loss to a team still without Damian Lillard. If the Cavaliers’ game was a meal, it would have been balanced, with a cool beverage and a personal favorite dessert. If the same could be said for the Blazers, it was a dish with a couple of reliable components, but ultimately lacking flavor and punch.
Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen combined for 82 of their teams’ 114 points. They scored in a multitude of fashions and once they seized the lead, they held on to it for dear life. Jerami Grant, Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons all scored over 20 points. However, the defensive effort was off, and the team, for the first time all year, looked like they really missed their all-star guard.
This stress-inducing game was still vital to getting a feel for how Portland handles themselves against top competition in the league, without Lillard. Our quarter-by-quarter recap can be found here. Once you’ve seen that, here are several observations on tonight’s game, and why things transpired the way they did.
Point Guards Set the Tone Early
Garland and Justise Winslow got their teammates going from the onset. Eight of the Cavaliers’ twelve points in the paint for the quarter came before the first timeout halfway through the period. Much of that was thanks to Garland slicing into the lane and dishing to Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen for easy hooks inside. It was apparent that Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his staff put the onus on attacking Jusuf Nurkic offensively. It prevailed. For Portland, Winslow was active on the boards, corralling rebounds and pushing the rock up the court. He ended the quarter with three assists, and much of that was due to anticipating when Simons, Grant and other Blazers’ wings would get to their spots on the outside, where he’d feed them with one-handed dimes on the money.
Big Man, Little Man Action
Much of what was elaborated on above was key to the recipe for success that Cleveland profited off of in the first quarter. As a result, they pounded that horse to death early in the second. Their first 12 points were scored by Garland and Allen, and it came by way of familiar shot selections — hooks and 3-pointers. When Donovan Mitchell re-entered the game, he got in on the action, firing from distance and breaking ankles in the process. He would hit more triples in the period, as Portland failed to get hands up on the shooter. Jarrett Allen ended the second, the way he did the first, with buckets that gave momentum to his team. It was a true inside-out affair for the entirety of the first half, starting with points in the paint and venturing outward, similar to a football team that establishes their run before airing it out to receivers.
Turnovers, Turnovers, and More Turnovers
The Blazers committed 11 turnovers in the first 18 minutes of play. They average 15.0 per game on the season. Those 11 giveaways resulted in 13 points scored by the Cavaliers. Every turnover resulted in points on the board on average — a disastrous situational for any team looking to get back in the win column. Surprisingly enough, none of those 13 points were points on the fast break. A silver lining was that the Blazers were good at getting back and halting transition offense. A caveat was that many of their turnovers resulted in dead-ball situations, and they were careless at that. Turnovers were a major driving force for Cleveland extending their lead in that 12-minute stretch.
Thank God for Jerami Grant
Had it not been for Grant, the Blazers would’ve been facing a much greater deficit than nine points at halftime. Grant was everywhere, looking almost like Klay Thompson as he was catching and shooting from distance with ease and limited dribbles. Aside from just this game, he has really found a niche for himself as a shooter. Tonight — reflective of many other nights this season — he exhibited a peculiar ability to hit 3-pointers without fully setting. He’d catch the ball in front of his face, or slightly above his head, and already be ready to let it fly. Aside from the trey ball, Grant ran hard in transition and drew fouls, leading the team in free throws made with four.
No Man Left Out
Portland nourished their big man with touches in the third, and Nurkic capped off the quarter with 12 points. He was a menace, lowering his shoulder and impressing upon the chest cavity of Jarrett Allen and whoever else was in front of him. He had a couple errant shots, but otherwise, kept the Blazers within single digits in the minutes he was in. For the Cavaliers, Evan Mobley was the only starter who was struggling in the first half. Point guard maestro Garland took it upon himself to get Mobley involved, where he had a six-point quarter.
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
The defensive prowess of the Cavaliers must be accentuated. They were communicable, they read passing lanes to a T, they (especially their big men) moved their feet exceptionally well, and their length was a pestilence for Blazers slashers. This persisted throughout the game, and their grit was commendable. For all of this though, they weren’t able to break the game open and keep it there until the fourth, as Portland’s resilience kept them coming.
Too Much Sauce
It got to a point where the Cavaliers were getting much too saucy — like fettuccine alfredo saucy. Garland was hitting step-back 3-pointers, putting the ball between his legs like a prime Vince Carter. Mitchell was out there looking like the spitting image of a young Dwyane Wade, euro-stepping to the cup and having his way with Blazers defenders. Not to mention dunking on Nurkic and company inside. Surely Blazers fans alike were, at least in the back of their minds, looking for a hard foul from someone to send a message, not tolerate such marksmanship, and spark a fire in their teammates. It never came, and the lead ballooned to as high as 20. Perhaps it was absent good reason, as flagrant fouls are given out as much as Thanksgiving Turkeys in this era of basketball. Nevertheless, one would think coach Billups would try something out of the norm to jolt his team into action.
Why No Zone?
Portland went to a 2-3 zone for one possession in the game. They didn’t ingratiate the scheme that has seen them have much success this season into their gameplay tonight. Their issue with limiting 3-pointers was a problem, yet again.
The Blazers have now lost four games in a row. They’ve also dropped five of the last six. They’ll look to rest up with their families on Thanksgiving, before refocusing on notching a needed win against the New York Knicks on the road at 4:30 p.m. PT.