Damian Lillard went off for a season-high 50 points, but the Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t finish the job against the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday evening, crumbling down the stretch and falling 119-113 at the Moda Center.
Cleveland was one of the upstart teams in the East last season and have only gotten better with the acquisition of Donovan Mitchell, who was jettisoned amidst a Utah Jazz tear down back in September. It couldn’t have worked out any better for the Cavs, as the move eastward hasn’t thrown Mitchell off his game the slightest. Halfway through the season, Mitchell is having his best year as a pro, averaging nearly 30 points per game, including a Kobe-esque 71-point explosion Jan 2. against the Chicago Bulls.
Lillard’s 50 points were ultra-efficient - coming on just 28 shots. He shot 16-28 overall, 13-15 from the foul line. Jerami Grant added 22 points.
Mitchell did most of his damage in the fourth quarter and finished with 26 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
The Blazers started this game either laser-focused or blissfully unaware, depending on which side of the ball one prefers to look at. At the offensive end, Portland ran straight out of the gates with a cutting Grant layup on the opening possession. They proceeded to knock down their first six shots. Lillard and Simons both connected on contested triples, Josh Hart hustled his way to a transition layup. Only five minutes past the opening tip, the Blazers were already sitting on 21 points.
But despite the hot start, Portland failed to gain much traction, primarily due to inexplicably poor interior defense. With the Blazers’ attention firmly affixed to the Cleveland backcourt, the Cavs zagged when Portland expected them to zig. Mitchell and Darius Garland attacked the paint out of the high pick and roll, which forced Jusuf Nurkic into no-man’s land between a charging all-star combo guard and the 7-foot lob machine of Jarrett Allen standing unimpeded next to the basket. Cleveland identified the weakness early and exploited it relentlessly, scoring four alley-oop dunks on nearly identical plays before Chauncey Billups called for time.
Portland fared better against the Cavs’ backups. Three free throws from Lillard in the final minute helped the Blazers seize a 32-27 lead after one.
For part of the second quarter, it looked like the Blazers’ juggling act might have finally found its rhythm. Nurkic helped redeem his earlier woes with impressive back-to-back defensive stops against Garland, then capped off the sequence with a bruising post-up over Allen. The oft-threatening Caris LeVert was a non-factor for Cleveland’s second unit, Mitchell struggled with his shot for much of the half. All the while Lillard kept the Portland offense chugging along with consistent production. Back-to-back drives to the cup by Dame gave the Blazers a 43-29 lead midway through the period.
But the momentum could not be sustained, as Mitchell and Allen helped the Cavs finish the half strong. Mitchell’s driving layup with 0.2 remaining cut Portlands lead to 7 at 58-51 heading into the break.
The third quarter mirrored much of the first, with the Blazers finding their shooting stroke early and Cleveland making the rim look like a NERF toy attached to a bedroom door. Garland and Lillard traded threes, Hart and Mitchell free throws, Nurkic and Allen dunks and around it went with neither side able to definitely take control.
The stalemate wasn’t really broken until the final two minutes when the Blazers suddenly went cold and Mitchell got hot, knocking down a pair of threes that pulled the Cavs within two. A layup by Lillard in the final minute helped to provide a little breathing room, but the walls were closing in fast.
The Blazers started the fourth flat with a turnover and two Grant misses. At that point, Lillard must have sensed that if anybody were to get it done tonight, it was going to be him. Dame came into the period with a game-high 35 points already and was responsible for Portland’s first 11 in the final frame. A sky-high step-back three over the outstretched arms of Isaac Okoro gave Portland a 102-97 lead and Lillard 46 points on the night.
But again Cleveland buckled down and closed the quarter strong. All it took was a few empty possessions, a small run from the Cavs and before you knew it Mitchell was burying a go-head three. The Blazers not named Lillard were listless, failing to prop up their star in any meaningful way down the stretch.
A careless turnover by Hart that led to an easy Mitchell fast break with a minute and a half remaining was the nail in the coffin, handing Cleveland a 6-point lead that they wouldn’t surrender.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon!
The Blazers will get a day off before hosting a weekend double-header against the Dallas Mavericks. Saturday’s tip is set for 7 p.m. Pacific.