Excuse the sawdust around here. Trying to spruce up the old “Knee Jerk Reactions” blog – which has been the title for my post-game thoughts – for a better name. So while I choose a new moniker, please don’t mind the goofy, temporary label.
Let’s get to the thoughts.
And first things first: Nicolas Batum just might have saved this road trip. Trail Blazers tiptoe out of Cleveland with the most precarious 118-117 double-overtime win. Both teams wouldn’t hedge in the second OT, making big shot after big shot but Batum’s last-second 3-pointer gave the Blazers (7-10) their first win on this seven-game roadie. Two more stops remain (Charlotte and Indianapolis) and after such an inspiring lift for a team that desperately needed a break – who knows, maybe the thrilling win will carry over. But let’s not get too far ahead, and just focus on how the Blazers survived a better-than expected Cleveland team.
1. Batum, Mr. Big Shot
Ever since that Nov. 10 Spurs game, Batum’s wanted a moment like this. On that night, Batum let fly a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the closing seconds instead of driving to the hole for a better shot. He missed and immediately confessed that he had made a mistake in shot selection. I respected that. Batum’s as honest as they come – about himself, about the team, so you know that unsuccessful jaunt into the pressurized moment just ate at him. Tonight, he got a do over.
Let’s rewind a bit. The Blazers trailed 116-115 with 52 seconds remaining in the second OT. We’ll have no clue which play Terry Stotts drew up during the timeout, because Damian Lillard lost the ball out of bounds following the team’s huddle.
Then with 2.5 seconds remaining, and Cleveland now up 117-115, the Blazers would certainly need a quick catch-and-shoot. To his credit, the rookie Lillard stayed calm while looking to make the inbounds pass, did not force a pass to Wesley Matthews streaking by first and instead spotted Batum to his right and hit him in the corner. Game over.
Just the other night in Boston, Batum finished with just nine points in 33 minutes and has been a bit dogged in mediocrity to worst during this trip (2-9 in Detroit, 6-15 in Brooklyn). In Cleveland, Batum bounced back with a better percentage (7 of 15, 3 of 4 from beyond the arc) and finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
2. Just what Lillard needed
In spite of Lillard’s aforementioned turnover – he got a bit sloppy with six overall – it was good to see him busting out of his four-game slide. No other starter embodied the troubles of the Blazers’ offense on this road trip more than Lillard. Two for eight… six for 21 … four for 18 … four for 12. After four straight games with those numbers, Lillard needed a night when he could break out and score 10 of the team’s 12 points during a third-quarter stretch and knock down both of his attempts during the second overtime frame.
Lillard finished with 24 points (9-of-17 shooting) and 11 assists. He was never better than during that third quarter run, when he began his skill showcase with a dribble fake that shook his defender loose as he stepped back for a three and ended with him jitterbugging into the lane for a layup. Again, just like Batum, this game could be just the confidence boost Lillard needs to finish the trip strong.
3. Can the bench get some love?
Not enough can be said about 11 Blazers scoring by halftime. The bench blew away its season average of just a little less than 13 points per game by combining for 29 tonight in Cleveland. Found money, guys. You’re just not going to get those numbers from this bench on a consistent basis – embrace it when you do.
Will Barton stood out once again. He entered the game in the first quarter – a trend that I’ve enjoyed seeing during this road trip – and continued the aggression from the perimeter players like Matthews and Lillard by looking to score at the rim. J.J. Hickson dropped a nifty pass to Barton who was cutting the baseline for the catch and dunk, and six of the team’s first 12 points had come inside the paint. Good sign. Around the 4:43 mark of the first quarter, Lillard spotted Meyers Leonard leaking out after a defensive stop and tossed a lob. Transition points. An excellent sign, I’d say.
Into the second quarter, Joel Freeland was even doing work – a mid-range jumper, a quick move around Anderson Varejao for the flush inside and a block at the halftime buzzer.
Now I must interrupt this love fest to point out the Blazers losing in hustle points. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Blazers (no biggie there… Varejao makes millions largely because he’s a beast on the boards) but those 15 offensive rebounds stung for 33 second-chance Cleveland points.
The lowlight of this effort occurred in the first overtime.
The Blazers controlled the 103-101 lead with 25.2 seconds remaining and out of the timeout, Dion Waiters missed a step-back jumper over Wesley Matthews and there were four black jerseys loitering around the hoop but not one grabbed the rebound. Instead, the ball touched the ground before rookie Tyler Zeller tapped it back for teammate Alonzo Gee who Euro-stepped the heck out of the Blazers to score at the rim and tie the game.
A defensive rebound might have secured the win. But instead of relaxing on the team bus, the Blazers had to endure another overtime period inside a lively Quicken Loans Arena. Let’s just say, they got away with one.