The Portland Trail Blazers played one of their most maddening halves of the 2023-24 season against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night. Following that, they put together one of the most sparkling 18 minutes of basketball you could hope to see from a young, incomplete team. The second part outweighed the first, leaving the Blazers with a 103-95 road victory.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Read to the end, because not all quarters were created equal in this one! After you’ve seen that, here are other key points that defined the game.
Turnovers were a major storyline in this game. Portland committed 10 in the second period alone on their way to 23 for the game. This was particularly frustrating because the Cavaliers couldn’t score any other way. They’re a low-mediocre offensive team anyway. Tonight Portland’s defense wasn’t bad on the perimeter. But turnovers had the dual effect of limiting Portland points (when they easily could have outscored the opponent otherwise) and creating easy shots for Cleveland. Head. Wall. Pound. Had they not completed the comeback, this entire paragraph would have been in caps.
In Search of a Point Guard
Both of Portland’s point guards looked sketchy tonight. The usually-stead Malcolm Brogdon committed 5 of the aforementioned turnovers. He looked like he was solving a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded while running the offense.
Scoot Henderson played off ball, but also looked off-balance, committing 5 TO’s himself. He can’t catch and shoot. He’s capable of making a simple entry pass, but when the defense shuts that off, driving into oblivion looks like the only option. Scoot did pull up from mid-range once. That jumper looks solid, not just NBA-ready but NBA star quality. That was the ray of hope in an otherwise rough, 1-8 outing. Even in more limited duty—albeit outside of his natural role and comfort zone—Henderson is struggling.
The Cavaliers scored 50 points in the paint tonight. It was not an accident. Their big men are legitimately big. The Blazers had Deandre Ayton—who did not have his best outing—and a bunch of question marks. As long as the Cavss went inside, the Blazers were all but helpless.
It’s worth noting that most of those points came in the first two periods and the opening half of the third. After that, Portland countered by packing the lane hard in the second half. Turnovers scuttled their plans early, but eventually the strategy paid off. Cleveland couldn’t hit threes to save their lives. The Blazers should also be credited for crowding the lane but still (mostly) recovering to the arc. Young legs have advantages, and Portland used them tonight.
Cleveland was butchering the Blazers on the offensive glass for much of this game, courtesy of their towering bigs. The third/fourth quarter transition crew of Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, and Jabari Walker put an end to that, finally closing the leak that had kept the Blazers hobbled all game long.
The Cavaliers ended up with 14 offensive rebounds for the game. As with paint points, the bulk of those came early, when Cleveland dominated.
Portland’s comeback wasn’t all work and sweat. They also shot 14-35, 40%, from the three-point arc. It’s no coincidence that the games that feature a strong three-point attack are also the ones they’re winning right now. Between the turnovers and other interesting offensive possessions, those threes are a huge lifeline.
Shaedon Sharpe scored 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists on an impressive 11-15 shooting night, 4-7 from deep. He also had 5 turnovers.
Those numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of how the sophomore sensation turned around the game for Portland at the start of the fourth. Sharpe not only became a scorer, he assumed the point guard duties that Brogdon and Henderson had bobbled through much of the game. Instead of hawking the Blazers for poke-aways on seemingly every possession, the Cavaliers were suddenly back on their heels under a barrage of layups and threes, either converted by or assisted on by Sharpe.
This was one of the best games of Sharpe’s career statistically, but it may have been THE best five-minute stretch taking over the game like a veteran superstar. Welcome, Next Gen Shaedon.
Sharpe keyed Portland’s second-half comeback, but he didn’t accomplish it alone. Three players deserve special mention in conjunction with this win.
Jabari Walker’s fourth-quarter play was astounding. As mentioned above, he helped Portland take control of the defensive glass for the first time all game. He also threw his wide body into taller Cleveland defenders, giving the Blazers a credible attack at the rim in the halfcourt. That opened up the sides for three-pointers by the players we’re about to mention.
If we’re talking threes, we can’t miss Duop Reath, who hit one in every period but the second, and sank a corner three in the fourth that made Portland’s comeback 100% more real. Reath led the bench with 13 points tonight.
Matisse Thybulle doubled up Reath in the final period, hitting a pair of threes and a breakaway dunk, scoring 8 in the period and 10 for the game on 50% overall shooting. That wasn’t even close to his best contribution though. Thybulle provided the sharp edge to the butcher knife defense Portland played in the fourth, forcing turnovers and disrupting passing lanes like he didn’t have a care in the world. What Malcolm Brogdon (usually) does for Portland’s offense, Thybulle does for their defense, providing a calming, effective, and occasionally-devastating veteran presence.
A Win for Later
Even with the win, Portland still stands at 6-12 on the season. And let’s get real. Opening the game with a million turnovers and no scoring attack doesn’t lend confidence that they’re on the road to sustainable victories.
But this was exactly the type of victory that paves the path for what they’ll become two or three years down the line. They won it with energy, active defense, rebounding, and a stubborn confidence that it wasn’t over even when they were down double digits in the second half. Add consistency and a little scoring punch on top of those ice cream scoops and you have a Decent Team Sundae.
Tonight we got a glimpse of what the Blazers are building towards. You know what? It wasn’t half bad.
Portland heads to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Jazz on Saturday with a 6:30 PM, Pacific start time.