March 16, 2018, 12:40 am
Defeating the Portland Trail Blazers, especially at home, has become an increasingly difficult task. For a majority of Thursday’s game, though, it sure seemed like LeBron James might do it all by himself. Fortunately for the Blazers, a team will always best the individual in basketball.
The Blazers beat the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers 113-105, extending their league-long winning streak to 11 games and winning their 17th game in their 18 tries at Moda Center. James was awesome all night long and downright breathtaking at times, finishing with 35 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, two steals and three blocks on 15-of-25 shooting. Still, he was mostly a one-man show to Portland’s full-set band on Thursday. C.J. McCollum led the Blazers with 29 points, and Damian Lillard had 24 points and nine assists. It was the contributions of Al-Farouq Aminu (11 points, nine rebounds, three assists), Moe Harkless (17 points, five rebounds, two steals) and Evan Turner (11 points, seven rebounds, five assists) that first allowed their team to pull away from James and the Cavaliers, and ultimately allowed it to emerge victorious.
James’ most impressive play during a performance overflowing with them was one of the most vicious dunks of his career – yes, 15 years removed from when it began in 2003. After going left around a screen from Rodney Hood at the top of the floor, he separated from Aminu with a burst of speed and saw Jusuf Nurkic awaiting in the restricted area. Rather than waiting to jump or opting for a floater, James lifted off that rocket-thruster left leg from just inside the far edge of the paint, some 10 feet from the rim. What happened next had Moda Center buzzing for minutes afterward, and resulted in a highlight that will be played long after James’ playing days are regrettably finished.
— NBA (@NBA) March 16, 2018
It almost seems impossible to beat arguably the greatest player of all time when he’s playing like he was, at least for a time, on Thursday night. But the depleted Cavaliers didn’t quite offer James the help he needed to break the Blazers’ winning streak, as evidenced by his (relatively) low assist total and his team’s poor shooting from beyond the arc until a last-ditch comeback attempt. Even worse for Cleveland though, is that Portland was the one making all the hustle plays necessary to beat a good team on the road. During one high-leverage sequence early in the third quarter, Aminu got the Blazers an extra possession by fighting through listless defenders on the offensive glass, and Harkless grabbed an offensive rebound completely uncontested – only one Cavalier got back on defense – after McCollum jumped a passing lane and missed a three in transition.
Portland was up 71-62 by then, and not even some incredible isolation shot-making from James on consecutive possessions shortly thereafter awakened the rest of the Cavaliers. Nurkic kept finding cutters from the block, McCollum kept embarrassing defenders from all over the floor and the active, engaged Blazers refused to let any non-LeBron opponent get comfortable. It seemed like the game might be over for all intents and purposes when Lillard, sensing the moment, pulled up for this 30-footer in semi-transition, bringing an amped-up crowd to its feet yet again.
But following a timeout, Cleveland rung off seven straight points, none of which were scored by James. Were his teammates finally coming around? Not quite, and The King’s hot hand only lasted so long. He missed his final four shots of the quarter before heading to the bench and trading verbal barbs with Lue, while Portland righted the ship to take an 11-point lead into the final stanza.
Cleveland tried its best to chip away at a Portland lead that was once as high as 15 points in the fourth quarter. But due to some stellar shot-making by Shabazz Napier, McCollum and Lillard, the visitors only made some headway by the time it was too late. Terry Stotts took a timeout after the Cavaliers scored an easy two off an inbounds play to get within six, then James found George Hill for a three-pointer that cut the Blazers’ lead in half with just under three minutes remaining.
That’s when the Blazers’ role players, a strength of late but especially against the depleted Cavaliers, made their biggest impact. Aminu drained a three to give Portland some much-needed breathing room. Lillard swiped a steal on a cross-court by James on Cleveland’s next trip, and Harkless got his team an extra possession by tapping a mis back out to the perimeter, eventually leading to a one-footed fadeaway by Turner that put Portland up 110-102 with 1:49 left. The Blazers were assured of victory when James, streaking down the floor with his team down five, misfired on an essentially uncontested layup as the game clock read 33.3 seconds.
Portland is doing it all. Its stars are living up to that reputation, its supporting pieces are stepping up on a nightly basis and its bench is making a consistently positive impact every night. Against most teams led by James, a win of this comfort would be cause for celebration, but not these Cavaliers. Not only were they missing multiple regulars on Thursday night, but another losses pushes Cleveland to 7-7 since the trade deadline – when its season was supposed to turn around.
The Blazers’ season did exactly that long ago. Now it’s about beating teams they should, which is exactly what Lillard, McCollum and the rest did on Thursday, despite a typically herculean effort from James.