7:50. Seven minutes and fifty seconds elapsed, spanning the third and fourth quarters, before the Cleveland Cavaliers (10-31) converted a field-goal attempt. Kyrie Irving made a 20-foot jumper with 5:47 to go, putting the Wine and Gold up by two after trailing early on in the final frame after leading the Portland Trail Blazers (20-19) by as much as 19 points in the second quarter. From that point on Irving, once again, became Mr. Fourth Quarter by scoring 10 of Cleveland’s 18 points in the final six minutes of the game.
Irving broke the dry spell after Damian Lillard, Kyrie’s counterpart and frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, had previously knocked down a three to knot the game at 75 apiece. The 2012 ROY couldn’t let Lillard, who he had kept in check all night, upstage him in a time when all eyes are usually on the former Duke Blue Devil. He had taken Lillard, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, to school constantly and couldn’t let his lesson to the former Weber State star go untaught. With less than six minutes to go in the game, it was time for Cleveland’s primetime point guard to tutor Lillard by showing him who was the teacher on the court by bringing his team to a 93-88 victory at the Rose Garden.
While Lillard finished with 13 points (3-of-9 from the field) and seven assists, the much wiser Uncle Drew recorded his sixth 30+-point performance of the season. He finished with 31 points, five assists and four steals, while shooting 54.2 percent from the field. The Cavaliers’ defense heckled Lillard all night, which was key in keeping him from distributing the ball to Portland’s scorers and limiting his shots from the perimeter.
From the onset of the game, Irving showed why he was the craftier point guard, as he finished the first quarter with 11 points. The point guard’s play, coupled with the offensive rebounding efforts from Tristan Thompson, helped pace the Cavaliers on the way to an early 15-1 run. However, Nicolas Batum, a player who gave Cleveland problems all throughout the first half, closed the gap in the waning seconds of the opening quarter by knocking down two threes in the matter of 30 seconds. Oddly enough, it was the Wine and Gold bench that helped to keep Cleveland’s 26-21 lead after one quarter in the following period.
Going into this matchup, Portland and Cleveland were boasting two of the worst bench units in the league in regards to points scored. The Trail Blazers and Cavaliers rank 30th (16.8 PPG) and 28th (26.4 PPG) in bench scoring respectively, but neither team’s reserves wowed in regards to offensive output (shocker). It was more the defensive effort, with center Tyler Zeller on the floor, which helped Cleveland keep an advantage over the home team going into the break. Portland is a team that relies heavily on their starters to produce, but besides Batum, Cleveland bigs Tristan Thompson and Zeller had kept threats LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson in check for the first 24 minutes.
Batum was saving his team from completely collapsing early on, as he finished the half with 17 points and five rebounds. If it weren’t for his counterproductive seven turnovers, and the play of Thompson and Zeller, the game would have been much closer. The two Cavalier frontcourt members helped shut down Aldridge, who is averaging 20.8 points and 8.6 rebounds, and Hickson to a combined seven points and nine boards. By himself, Thompson finished the half with 10 points and nine boards (five on the offensive end), but it was the work of Zeller, who was +12 in the game-high 40 minutes that he played tonight, that impressed me the most. He drew four offensive fouls and was aggressive getting to the hoop, resulting in nine early points and five rebounds. Cleveland took a 53-36 lead to the locker room, but haven’t we heard this story before?
As all Cavalier fans should know by now, no matter how good this team plays in the first half, the second 24 minutes of basketball dictates a win or loss for the Wine and Gold. After holding down the fort in the first and second periods, Hickson and Aldridge broke through and helped lead a 17-7 run to start the third quarter. They fixed their problems with containing Batum from outside, but that led to other problems down low. Key points in Cleveland keeping their lead going into the fourth included keeping the Portland bench scoreless from 1:52 to go in the first to 2:54 to go in the third quarter and regulating Lillard on defense to zero shot attempts.
Then Lillard tried to be Kyrie. Kyrie didn’t like that. After disciplining Damian with nice spins and aggressive cuts to the hoop all night, the Portland rookie thought he could be the one to win the game for his team. The Trail Blazer point guard scored 10 of his team’s first 21 points in the fourth, and put his team up one point with 2:06 to go. Kyrie answered, twice. After an easy two, he put up a picturesque kiss off the backboard on the following Cavalier possession – after a stop on defense – with 26 seconds to go in the game to put Cleveland up three. Hickson then showed some love to his former team in the form of two missed free throws. Cleveland took the five-point victory, powered by yet another Thompson double-double performance (19 points, 14 rebounds) and a productive night from Zeller – 11 points, nine boards, one turnover, two blocks and he drew six offensive fouls.
Cleveland handed Portland their fourth-straight loss, and will have a few days off before they match up with the Utah Jazz on Saturday to wrap up their West Coast trip. The game is set to tipoff at 9 p.m.