March 15, 2018, 3:27 pm
OPPONENT: Cleveland Cavaliers
RECORD: 39-28 (17-17 on road, 5-5 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 109.9 offensive rating (fifth), 109.4 defensive rating (28th), +0.5 net rating (16th)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:00pm EST, Moda Center (Portland), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Ohio
Forget anything about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season prior to February 8. Well, sort of. Tyronn Lue‘s team completely overhauled its roster at the trade deadline, effectively replacing Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose with George Hill, Larry Nance, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson, acknowledging another depressing reality of the Kyrie Irving trade – that the Cavaliers, as previously constructed, were irreparably broken.
The earliest post-deadline takeaways from Cleveland’s on-the-fly rebuild were extremely encouraging. The Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder in successive road games, heading into the All-Star break as not just the talk of the league, but also as a near-consensus favorite in the Eastern Conference. What a difference three weeks make. Cleveland is just 5-6 in the interim, with four double-digit losses and not a single victory over a team currently in playoff position. Making matters worse is the team’s health. As the Cavaliers await Kevin Love’s return from a broken left hand, they’ve also lost Tristan Thompson, Cedi Osman and Rodney Hood to injury, only the latter of whom might be available to play on Thursday against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Most discouraging for Cleveland is the overarching problem that plagued the initial iteration of this team has barely been mitigated by the current one. The Cavaliers’ defensive rating of 107.3 since the trade is misleading; the relative success they’ve enjoyed on that side of the ball of late is mostly due to effectiveness of lineups that won’t see much time during the postseason. To wit, Cleveland has allowed 110.6 points per 100 possessions with LeBron James on the floor since the trade, but just 97.4 points per 100 possessions in the 153 minutes he’s been on the bench, per NBA.com/stats. More encouragingly, the Cavaliers’ defensive rating with James, George Hill and Larry Nance in the lineup, their three best defenders and fixtures of the starting lineup, has a more manageable defensive rating of 106.7.
The sample size here still isn’t big enough to glean much concern about Cleveland’s hopes of advancing to its fifth straight NBA Finals, at least with respect to how Lue’s team was playing before the trade. The Cavaliers are better off now than they were then, definitely. But integrating so many new pieces while a stalwart like Love and other rotation players go in and out the lineup takes an inevitable toll. Continuity is key in the NBA, and Cleveland doesn’t have any whatsoever.
After suddenly starting in place of the demoted J.R. Smith in a win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, Kyle Korver expressed ignorance at his team’s revolving door of changes to the rotation.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” he told Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon. “I don’t know if this is a one-game thing. I really have no idea. I told Ty I’m ready to do whatever he needs, just tell me before the game starts.”
Lue has earmarked Hood to start alongside Hill in the backcourt once he’s healthy, but the former Utah Jazz wing will be on a minutes restriction against Portland if he’s available to play at all. Korver, perhaps the league’s most dangerous off-ball shooter at 6-foot-8, obviously presents his own set of problems for the Blazers given his incessant movement and the ability of James to pass him open. But his presence on the floor also ensures that C.J. McCollum will be guarded by a much bigger, slower defender – whether it’s Korver, James or spot starter Jeff Green. Look for Terry Stotts to exploit that potential mismatch early.
As always, the play of Jusuf Nurkic will be instrumental to keeping the opponent in check. James can be goaded into launching jumpers if Nurkic is well-positioned and physical at the rim. Ed Davis might be a better option in pick-and-roll action versus players with the speed of James, but Nurkic’s rare strength ensures he’ll be the Blazers’ most impactful deterrent in the paint. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing might depend on James’ mood more than anything else. Nance always looms as a ball-screen and dunker-spot alley-oop option, too, and has shot the ball very well from mid-range since being traded to Northeast Ohio.
The Cavaliers have never been more dependent on James, and Portland knows it. Relying so much on a single player would be a major problem for most teams, and certainly registers as such for Cleveland with regard to its dwindling chances of making the NBA Finals, let alone winning them. But LeBron is LeBron. He’s always tormented the Blazers, and knows his team needs as many victories as possible to both retain home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and maybe more importantly, engender the positive vibes necessary to prompt a late-season turnaround.
Will James end Portland’s 10-game winning streak? We’ll find out tonight.