When LaMarcus Aldridge dropped in an easy jumper to give the Blazers an 11-point lead with 4:26 to go in the game, I felt like a genius.
LeBron James was 9-for-23 from the field and scored 26 points...good, but definitely not among his best games. The Cavs’ shooting percentage was in the high 30s with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Daniel Gibson having off-nights and the game was there for the taking.
Fortunately for Cleveland, Portland was also struggling. Its bench shot a horrific 7-for-33 for the game and the normally-reliable Steve Blake was 4-for-11. For the game, the Blazers would end up shooting just 35 percent. Still, they maintained a two-to-four possession lead for the majority of the game.
But when you have a one-man team down, you need to put the pedal to the metal.
Portland needed to expand on that lead and make it so one person could not come back and beat them. Nobody on Cleveland, with the possible exception of Drew Gooden, was stepping up. They did just enough to hang around in that eight or 10-point deficit range.
Unfortunately for Portland, the NBA elected to play 48 minutes instead of the 44 Portland felt like playing. The Blazers shifted into Matador-defense mode. James got uncontested shot after uncontested shot.
Memo to Portland: This James kid is a good player.
He dropped in a 3-pointer. Gooden somehow got a shot to fall from the lane, and James followed that with another three. The closest defenders were wearing Cavaliers' jerseys and the game was tied.
Outlaw saw what was happening and went right at James, who dropped in a tough shot to give Portland back the lead. Portland got what they needed as James finally missed a shot, but Gooden got the offensive rebound and was fouled.
When he missed his second shot, Portland had another chance...but Ilgauskas got the offensive rebound. Inexplicably, it was not James who took the next shot and when the 3-pointer rimmed out, Portland had everything they needed in place.
Well, everything except the willingness to put it in the hands of their most reliable fourth-quarter performer, Outlaw. Blake's wide-open trey rimmed out it was James time, except he missed the layup.
So Portland set up their final possession to possibly seal the game. The play they had the most success with involved a side screen pick-and-roll with Roy and Aldridge. Their second-best play had been working the ball to Outlaw on the right side and letting him create his own shot. So they wisely had Roy dribble down the clock, set no picks, and got only a no-chance off-balance shot.
Still, with 4.9 seconds left, the Blazers had a one-point lead. Sure they had had numerous chances to extend it, and somehow survived a barrage of blown opportunities to claim defensive rebounds, but they had the lead and two guys who had caused James problems all night.
So instead, they put Brandon Roy on James. Huh? Where did that come from?
Well, James must have thought this was practice because he looked like he was doing a layup drill. He cakewalked to the left, drifted down the lane and put in an uncontested layup. Oh, it did not look uncontested, as three Blazer jerseys were within a couple feet of him, only they didn't bother to defend it.
James is a great player and if nobody attempts to stop the drive or challenge the shot, the results will be very favorable for the Cavaliers. James made it look easy and suddenly the Blazers were staring real long odds in the face with something like three tenths of a second and inexplicably one of their shortest players inbounding the ball. Cleveland coach Mike Brown put Ilgauskas in front of him which effectively ended the game.
The final box score shows James with 37 points on 13-29 shooting and that is what sets him apart from virtually every other player in the league.
Whereas Roy struggled down the stretch, making no shots and getting no easy ones, James got open looks from outside and inside and he made them. He turned a poor-shooting, average-scoring loss into a decent-shooting, great-scoring night and a win for his team.
There has been a local debate over whether Roy should be an All-Star. I have not won popularity contests by suggesting that while he is clearly the Blazer-MVP, he is not yet at the All-Star level.
Statistically speaking, he is not one of the top-12 Western-Conference players, though statistics do not tell the entire tale. But a night like this is where an All-Star earns his honors.
Roy had a very good night, but when it mattered, when he had to either score or identify the right person to get the ball and he did not come through and defensively, he was destroyed by James.
I am a huge Brandon Roy fan. His jersey is the first player's I've ever worn. He is going to be a difference-maker for this team for many, many years to come. But he is still evolving as a player and this game was an example of one where he did not take the steps an All-Star needs to.
This game was all about James. He scored 44 percent of the Cavaliers' points, grabbed over a quarter of their rebounds and on a night the Cavaliers not named James all failed to make double digits, he still found a way to pick off four assists, almost a third of their total of 13.
It was the type of transcendent performance that makes games by players like James worth watching.
While I am disappointed that Portland lost, I hope they use this as a learning experience and figure out ways to deliver that knockout blow.
All season, they have won the close games and perhaps they have come to count on that so they relax a bit as they seemed to do when Aldridge hit that jumper. But this time, not putting a team away when they had the chance came back to bite them and deservedly so.
When you give a great player a chance, he takes it.
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