PORTLAND, ORE.: A 17-point lead at the half was chopped to 12, then 10 and finally nine Wednesday night at the Rose Garden. As he called a timeout and huddled with his coaches just two minutes into the third quarter, coach Byron Scott knew he’d seen this script before – and it almost always has a tragic ending for the Cavaliers.
“I’ve seen this movie before,” Scott said. “I was wondering how we were going to do this time compared to a few of the other times. I was hoping we didn’t have another re-run.”
A Cavs team notorious for poor third-quarter starts collided with a Blazers team famous for their second-half rallies. But Kyrie Irving scored 31 points, including six consecutive big ones late in the game, and the Cavaliers escaped with a 93-88 victory in a game they once led by 19.
Even when the Cavs led 51-32 late in the first half, everyone on the Cavs’ bench braced for the inevitable. The Blazers have nine wins this season when trailing at the half, second in the NBA only behind the Indiana Pacers’ 10. So when the Blazers tore a sizable chunk out of the deficit within the first two minutes, no one was really surprised.
“Somehow that third quarter is our Achilles heel right now,” Irving said. “We just become so soft physically. Teams beat us up, then we have to fight back again. It’s just a process we have to continue to learn from.”
Scott said after the loss at Sacramento the Cavs needed to get tougher inside and now Irving concurs. But at least for one night, the Cavs displayed a little mental toughness in fighting back after the Blazers took the lead.
The Cavs missed their first nine shots of the fourth quarter, allowing the Blazers to take an 86-85 lead on Damian Lillard’s jumper with 2:07 left. Scott said prior to the game his goal was to eliminate Lillard because “he’s the head of the snake. Cut off the head of the snake and the body dies.”
So the Cavs used Alonzo Gee on Lillard most of the night. As a result, Lillard didn’t score his first basket until the fourth quarter. He still finished with 13 points and nine assists, including 10 points in the fourth quarter, but the Cavs built their big lead by neutralizing who could be the future Rookie of the Year.
Irving responded to Lillard’s basket with a long jumper on the Cavs’ ensuing possession. He added another jumper and a pair of free throws on the next two trips down the floor to keep the Cavs in control.
The Blazers, who play their starters exorbitant minutes every night and were playing the second night of a back-to-back after losing at Denver on Wednesday, looked gassed by the end of the night.
“The last thing we had written on the board was composure, and I thought we had that in the latter part of the game,” Scott said. “We kept our composure, tried to run our plays and tried to get the type of shot we wanted. We knew at the end we had to defend and we were able to do that the last couple of minutes.”
Irving scored half of his points in the first quarter, when he came out firing and looked much more aggressive early than he has at any other point on this trip. Irving made 6 of 9 shots and outscored Lillard 15-2 after the first quarter.
Scott didn’t think Irving was as aggressive at the start of the third quarter, which was part of the reason the Blazers got back into the game so quickly.
“I like him aggressive the whole game,” Scott said. “I think he’s trying to figure out how to be an aggressive player for us, and still get his guys involved. When he’s aggressive, he’s pushing the ball and he’s in attack mode, I think our guys feed off that. When he’s not aggressive, I think we feed off that, and I thought that was very evident in the third quarter.”
The victory ended the Cavs’ three-game losing streak and their four-game skid against the Blazers. It also made amends for that crushing double-overtime loss at home earlier in the season. Had they blown this lead, it may have stung even worse.