Irving Weighs in On Damian Lillard
The Portland Trail Blazers came back from a 19-point deficit to take a one-point lead late in the game but it was Kyrie Irving's late game heroics that helped seal the 93-88 victory for the Cleveland Cavaliers, ending their three-game losing streak.
Irving finished with a game-high 31 points but none of those points were more important than the six he scored in the last two minutes of the game.
After the Trail Blazers (20-19) took a 86-85 lead off of a Damian Lillard mid-range jumper with 2:07 remaining in the game, Irving took Lillard to the hole with a nifty shake-and-bake from the top of the key to put his team up one.
A couple of possessions later, Irving hit a dribble pull-up, giving his team a three-point advantage with 26 seconds left. LaMarcus Aldridge nailed a quick fadeaway out of a timeout to bring his team within one with 22 seconds remaining.
Then it was time to foul and it was Irving who was sent to the line for two pressure free throws. He knocked them both down so smoothly as if he was playing in Cleveland, giving his team a three-point lead with 19 seconds on the clock.
JJ Hickson got fouled on the ensuing possession going to the basket and missed both free throws. That was the game. Irving willed his team to victory.
“I think he's an All-Star guard,” Lillard said. “I look forward to games against elite point guards. It was a challenge for me to guard him. I thought he made some tough shots and he made some really nice moves to free himself up. He had a nice night.”
Cavaliers Head Coach Bryon Scott tried a different approach from others in the handling of Lillard. He started the game with a bulky 6-6 Alonzo Gee draped around him full court.
The move made Lillard work for the ball more than he wanted to and often Gee's pressure forced other Trail Blazers to bring the ball up, disrupting the team's offense. It was one of Lillard's worst games as he finished with 13 points on three-for-nine shooting to go along with seven assist.
The Irving/Lillard showdown wasn't what people were expecting with Irving not matched up on Lillard for most of the game, but Lillard made sure he was matched up on Irving on defense.
“I wanted to guard him and if he made a tough shot or he lost me and ended up scoring, that's part of me embracing my job," Lillard said. "I'm not going to be that guy that runs away from somebody that can score the ball really well like him. I'm going to stand up to it and tonight he got some buckets.”
This strategy by Coach Scott might end up being the blueprint on how to slow down this rookie phenom. When asked if he was worried about other teams playing him this way, Lillard said, “Nope. It's all about adjustments.”
“I just have to work harder for the ball,” he said. “I let them take me out the game too easy. I didn't want to force anything. I won't make it that easy for teams to do that again.”
Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts went deep into his bench to rest his main guys after playing last night in Denver. Nolan Smith entered the game as the backup point guard midway through the first quarter oppose to Ronnie Price. To start the second, Stotts went with Smith, Will Barton, Batum, Jared Jeffries and Joel Freeland. At the half, the Trail Blazers were down 17.
"I was really pleased with the bench," Stotts said. "I think everybody is going to look at the fact that they shot two-for-whatever. I thought Joel played well, Nolan played well. I thought Jared Jeffries' impact on the game helped turn things around and that doesn't show on the boxscore. Will Barton was solid, he missed some shots. And Sasha [Pavlovic] was fine, he had two shots...I thought they had good energy and they played well."
The highlight of the night came in the third quarter when Lillard found Hickson trailing on the break. Lillard dropped a bounce pass to Hickson and he grabbed it and took off with two hands and smashed on Gee. He was fouled on the play and converted his free throw.
After losing four in a row, the Trail Blazers have fell out of the top eight in the Western Conference standings. They are now ninth, a half game back of Houston.