The Portland Trail Blazers will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Quicken Loans Arena tonight (Moda doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?), where Western Conference Player of the Week LaMarcus Aldridge will meet Eastern Conference Player of the Week Kyrie Irving for the first time this season. Though the Cavaliers (9-14) are nowhere near the Trail Blazers (21-4) on the season scoreboard, they are sneakily 7-3 at home. With the Trail Blazers on their third game of a 4-in-5, this game could be harder than you think.
The most important matchup to watch will not be Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving, but Robin Lopez and Anderson Varejao. Wild Thing is one of the league’s best rebounders when he gets the minutes, and could potentially slow Sideshow Rob on the offensive glass. The Trail Blazers need those smooth second chance points to ease their tired legs.
Interestingly enough, Varejao saw a spike in playing time (and Andrew Bynum a reciprocal dip) around the time it was rumored that Cleveland could be a trade destination for Houston’s Omer Asik. That could very well be coincidence, but it’s certainly something to watch. Andrew Bynum was stringing together his best games of the season prior to what can be speculatively called “the shopping of Anderson Varejao.” Either way, it’s bad news for Portland, who desperately need the rebounding edge tonight.
As for Cleveland’s backcourt, Portland may end up with a bigger advantage than was previously thought. Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters (fourth pick in the 2012 NBA draft) will be a game-time decision, after banging knees with Tyler Zeller in practice on Monday. If Waiters doesn’t play, the Cavaliers’ only legitimate scoring threat will be Kyrie Irving. I’m sure they’d manage to find acceptable production from other places, but one man cannot carry a team; especially if the team is Cleveland.
Portland’s keys to the game:
Damian Lillard must focus on facilitating. Sure, it’s nice when he puts up 25+ points, but Cleveland is not adequately equipped to defend all of Portland’s perimeter shooters. It will be Lillard’s job to keep the ball moving until the right shot opens up. Though it would be entertaining, there’s no need for a scoring battle with Kyrie Irving when Lillard must conserve his energy for Minnesota tomorrow.
LaMarcus Aldridge must use his size advantage. Anderson Varejao will be tangled with Robin Lopez down low, which means Aldridge gets to have fun with the 6’8” third year man Tristan Thompson. We’ll see how much the Cavaliers will let him score before throwing him a double-team. Be on watch for another MVP performance from LA.
Wesley Matthews has to limit Kyrie Irving. Last time they met, Irving torched him for 31 points. Matthews has made a great many improvements to his game this year, lateral quickness being one of them. Keeping up with Irving will be the toughest job anyone has tonight, so don’t be surprised if Portland sends a trap to help out.
Robin Lopez has to keep Anderson Varejao busy. If Varejao is allowed to help on LaMarcus Aldridge, we may see another slow start from LA. This doesn’t concern me terribly, but a taxing game for Aldridge tonight means an even tougher matchup with Kevin Love tomorrow. It won’t show up in the stat sheet, but if Sideshow Rob can keep his man in check, everyone else’s job gets easier.