Jan. 16, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket on Cleveland Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller (40) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. The Cavaliers won the game 93-88. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Game 39 Recap: Blazers 88, Cavaliers 93

I bring this quote to you from Wikipedia:

In statistics, regression toward the mean (also known as regression to the mean) is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend closer to the average on a second measurement, and — a fact that may superficially seem paradoxical — if it is extreme on a second measurement, will tend to have been closer to the average on the first measurement. To avoid making wrong inferences, the possibility of regression toward the mean must be considered when designing experiments and interpreting data, survey, and other empirical data in the physical, life, behavioral, and social sciences.

Left off of that list of things that use statistics for various purposes is basketball. A week ago, the Blazers won four straight close games. This week they’ve lost four straight close games. In 2012-13, Portland is at its best a .500 team.

We knew that when they ripped off wins against Memphis, Minnesota, Orlando, and Miami all by six points or less, but we believed that maybe we were wrong and that the Blazers were actually as good or better than some of the teams they were beating.

We know that now too, after Portland has lost to Golden State, Oklahoma City, Denver, and now Cleveland by six points or less. The difference is, after four straight losses (the most recent of which came at the hands of a now 10-win team) the Blazers feel less like they’re regressing towards a manageable mean, and more like they are falling off the face of the planet.

Let me be the first to relieve you of some of that stress. The Blazers aren’t falling apart. Yes after four straight losses they’ve fallen out of the Western Conference’s top eight spots, but the reality of this season is that Portland, as they are by themselves, are probably not a Playoff team. The Blazers may still make the post season, but only because the bottom half of the Western Conference’s Playoff teams is not as strong as some might think.

And that’s what regression towards the mean is all about. A mediocre team can get hot for a week or two (we see it every season), but that always means that a week or two later they’ll come back down to earth. The same thing happens for a good team that has a bad week. What makes Portland’s last two weeks so shocking is that the turnaround has been so quick and is also so black and white. As almost everybody said in their post game remarks, last week the Blazers were winning all their close games, this week they’re losing them.

Beyond just letting this loss (a tough loss to a bad team with one very very good player) roll off your shoulders as an unfortunate effect of standard regression, it’s important to remember that 2012-13 is a learning season. I feel like the Blazers learned plenty Wednesday night.

The first thing they learned is that Kyrie Irving is very good, and if you let him beat you by himself he’ll probably do it. Wednesday last season’s Rookie of the Year put on an offensive show. Irving shot 13-of-24 from the field, finishing with 31 points, getting the better of Damian Lillard many times over.

When these two teams meet again next season, the Blazers should take a page out of Byron Scott’s book. Wednesday, the Cavaliers head coach made a decision to put Alonzo Gee (a big strong defender) on Damian Lillard for the whole night. Portland’s head coach Terry Stotts, chose to let his rookie point guard defend the best young guard in the league. Irving’s point total should tell you how that went. There’s no doubt in my mind that Damian’s first professional off-season will be spent working on his on the ball defense. Defense is the only clear hole in Lillard’s game (regardless of what the insta-Twitter reaction was Wednesday night following an otherwise lackluster performance from the predicted ROY), and Dame isn’t the type of player to not address his own personal weakness.

That being said, blitzing Kyrie Irving to get the ball out of his hands, and putting a bigger defender on him, might have slowed him down a little bit on Wednesday. Of course, hard double teams on a good passing guard can lead to unintended consequences. Wednesday night, Tristan Thompson almost doubled his season average by scoring 19 points. Almost all of his baskets came at the rim. Tyler Zeller was also the beneficiary of Irving’s giving. The rookie (drafted after Meyers Leonard who in case you were wondering is still on the Blazers’ roster) scored 11 points, and although he didn’t look great, he might look pretty excellent right now in a Portland jersey.

Another thing the Blazers hopefully learned Wednesday was that strong defense can make up for very poor offense. Portland looked absolutely awful in Wednesday’s first half. They trailed by double digits early in the first quarter, and by more than 10 at halftime. Nothing was falling for the Blazers, and to make matters worse, they weren’t even trying to stop the Cavaliers from scoring.

But Wednesday’s second half was a bit of a different story. Portland came out of the locker room motivated and aggressive. Although they couldn’t cut the deficit to less than seven until the fourth quarter, the Blazers looked like a very different team for the second 24 minutes of Wednesday night. Much of that difference came on the defensive end. Portland worked their way back into Wednesday’s game by getting stops. I said in my game preview that the Blazers could alleviate some of the damage done by what were going to be heavy legs by playing some tough defense.

I said also, that making the Cavs take difficult shots and work on offense would be a good way to disrupt and beat a bad young team that is used to losing. Cleveland clearly showed that they were capable of letting a 19-point lead slip away. If Portland had played enough defense to keep their first half deficit to under 10, they probably would have been victorious on Wednesday.

And finally, you have to believe that the Blazers knew this coming in, but if they didn’t, they know it now: you’ve got to make your free throws. The two misses by J.J. Hickson on Portland’s final possession will be the ones that stand out, but all told, the Blazers missed a total of nine free throws in a game they lost by five points. When making a comeback, everything counts. Missing free throws doesn’t exactly sink a comeback (not as much as turning the ball over, taking bad shots, and letting your opponent score at will), but it doesn’t help.

So Portland is now on a four-game losing streak. They’re back to one game over .500. And they’re showing signs that maybe having only four playable guys just isn’t going to cut it. But remember, the Playoffs are not the ultimate goal of this season. The Blazers are positioned to compete in the long-term. Competing in the short-term is nice, but winning now will not be done at the expense of winning later. Short-term success is nice (beating the Heat was great), but if long-term success means losing to the Cavs at home, then I’m OK with it.

Portland is back at the Rose Garden on Saturday to take on the Milwaukee Bucks.

Couple quick things:

  • The marquee match-up Wednesday night was Damian Lillard versus Kyrie Irving, and this was lost on absolutely no one. Mid-way through Kyrie’s pretty amazing night, a guy sitting behind the second auxiliary press row (in one of the very large party suites) leaned over the rail and asked us bloggers an important question: “Would you trade Damian Lillard for Kyrie Irving?” I laughed. This question is clearly a no-brainer. Yes, of course you trade Damian Lillard for Kyrie Irving. But that only happens if and when the Cavs owner and GM have a combined double stroke. Nobody on earth makes that trade, and if that trade became available and the Blazers didn’t make it, their whole front office would be fired or drawn and quartered by Portlanders.
  • More Dame and Kyrie? Why not. Many people mentioned that Irving had a number of one-on-ones with Damian that went his way. That fact is not to be disputed. However, Irving hardly guarded Damian at all, covering him only on switches in the half court. I’m impressed that Scott committed so much of his game plan to stopping Damian, but I would have liked to see Irving play a little defense. Also, on behalf of Lillard, Dame played pretty poorly for three quarters, but still hit a couple of big shots in the fourth quarter and finished with 13 points and seven assists. Dame’s seven assists were two more than Kyrie’s five. For anybody who is saying that Lillard isn’t the best rookie in the league and that Wednesday’s performance shows how Damian isn’t actually that good, I’m sorry, you’re wrong.
  • One more thing about Kyrie. Post-game, there was a lot of chatter about Kyrie’s tendency to take extra steps, palm the ball, and double dribble. He moves very quickly, so it’s hard to spot in real time, but take a look at this video. It’s a fantastic double spin move, and you might expect the travel would come at the second pivot point, which it doesn’t. However, there is an angle that shows as Kyrie goes into his first spin he picks up his dribble and plants both feet (that’s called a jump stop and is totally legal), and then picks up both feet and plants both feet again. One jump stop is fine. There’s a name for what taking two jump stops is called: traveling. The second jump stop is slight and impossible to catch in real time, but it’s there. I’m not saying this to run down Kyrie Irving. He’s pretty fantastic. I’m just saying that there was some truth to what sounded to me at the time as homerish grousing.
  • In Portland’s four wins a week a ago, the Blazers beat the Miami Heat, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Orlando Magic. Miami, Memphis, Minnesota, Magic, all M teams. They haven’t won since, and they haven’t played against an M related team. Saturday, the Blazers play the Milwaukee Bucks. If the trend continues, they’ll win.

Box Score


@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

Jan. 16, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) adjusts his headgear during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. The Cavaliers won the game 93-88. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

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