There is something conspicuously absent from Portland’s 2012-13 season. The blow-out victory. As it has been noted, the Blazers are the only top-eight team in the Western Conference and one of only five teams in the league with an above .500 record to have a negative overall point differential. Part of that is because many of Portland’s 20 wins have been in close games, and more than a few of the Blazers’ 18 losses have been blowouts.
As of Wednesday, Portland has won a total of three games by 15 or more: at Sacramento 103-86, at home against the Toronto Raptors 92-74, and again at home against the Kings 109-91. A big win will do a lot to flip the Blazers’ point differential. When and if those big wins start coming on a regular basis remains to be seen.
Which brings us to Wednesday. The Cleveland Cavaliers have the second-worst record in the NBA. Since Anderson Varejao, things have gone from bad but maybe getting better to awful and getting worse in the Cleve. Outside of last seasons Rookie of the Year and the NBA’s next next big thing Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers have very little to offer. Cleveland is on a three-game skid, they were blown out in LA at the beginning of the week by the Lakers and then dropped a high-scoring close game in Sacramento to the Kings, they’re on their fourth game in six nights, and they’ve won only twice in the month of January beating the Charlotte Bobcats who are the third-worst team in the NBA and the Atlanta Hawks who on Monday night managed a total of 58 points in what can be aptly described as the single most anemic performance by an NBA team through 48 minutes in 2012-13. The stage is set for a Blazer blowout, right?
Not so fast. Portland is on a three-game losing streak of their own. They’re coming home after playing an overtime game at altitude and losing on Tuesday night. And they still haven’t really figured out how to get a big lead and hold it. Not every game can be considered a trap game, but there are a lot of trap game red flags coming into this one.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Cavaliers Starting 5: PG Kyrie Irving, SG C.J. Miles, SF Alonzo Gee, PF Tristan Thompson, C Tyler Zeller
Beyond just finding the energy to get out and play this game, the key for the Blazers Wednesday night will be not getting away from LaMarcus Aldridge. Without Anderson Varejao in the lineup, the Cavaliers do not have the kind of interior defense/rebounding that can limit the effectiveness of a guy like LaMarcus. LA should get the ball a lot Wednesday night, and when he gets the ball, he should attack the rim. Tristan Thompson is a second-year pro; Tyler Zeller is a rookie. Neither guy can guard LA on his own. That means that either LaMarcus will get a lot of chances to go one-on-one with a lesser defender, or double teaming defense by the Cavs will leave Portland’s shooters open. Even if the Blazers’ shooters are making their shots, Portland should not stop feeding LA in the post all night. Working inside out will be how the Blazers will beat the Cavs.
After that, this game will be about Portland enforcing their style of play and dictating the pace of the action. The Blazers shouldn’t expect to make Wednesday a wire-to-wire blowout, but if they can keep Cleveland within eight to 12 points for most of the night, they’ll be in good shape.
What to Watch For
- Defense. There’s a very good chance the Blazers will come out Wednesday with lead in their legs. Their jumpers will be short. They might miss some layups. They might turn the ball over a couple of times. After all of that, they should be able to play defense. Although defense is certainly about fitness, it’s also about positioning, awareness, and decision making. Those things don’t require a lot of air in the lungs or juice in the legs. A young team like Cleveland, used to losing, can crumble under pressure defense. Inside out is the way Portland needs to play offense. Locking down is what the Blazers need to do on defense. If they can do that, they’ll be fine.
- Damian Lillard versus Kyrie Irving. This is the match-up. Last year’s ROY versus this year’s (according to everybody except the Internet’s most notorious block headed blow hard). Irving and Damian are very similar players. They’re both offensive minded and can shoot the lights out. Kyrie is much better with the ball in his hands, but for my money Dame is a better passing PG and can better run an offense. There is almost no doubt in my mind that Lillard will take it upon himself to stop Irving. If that makes any difference can be a key to this game. I can tell you now that Dame will not be able to stop Kyrie, not by himself and not entirely. But if Lillard can slow him down and/or make him work on defense, Portland’s newest Rookie of the Year should get the upper hand.
- The Blazers’ bench. I’ll keep saying it until they show up. And I’ll probably stick to it even then at least until it stops being a shock when a Portland reserve actually shows up.