Cleveland 84, Portland 83

With 4:26 to go in the game when LaMarcus Aldridge dropped in an easy jumper to give the Blazers an 11 point lead I felt like a genius. LeBron James was 9-23 from the field for 26 points...good, but definitely not among his best games, their shooting percentage was in the high 30s, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Daniel Gibson were non-factors and the game was there for the taking.

There were several elements that had led to this point in the game. To start with, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw had done an excellent job on James. Most of his buckets had come on fast breaks or when the Blazers went to their zone. On the occasions he did break down Webster or Outlaw and get to the bucket Joel Przybilla hovered there to turn back his shots. James was getting extremely frustrated by these events. Nor was he getting much help from his team.

Fortunately for Cleveland, Portland was also struggling. Their bench shot a horrific 7 for 33 for the game and normally reliable Steve Blake was 4 for 11. For the game the Blazers would end up shooting just 35%. Still, they maintained a 6 - 12 point 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 8 or 10 point deficit range.

Unfortunately for Portland the NBA elected to play 48 minutes instead of the 44 minutes 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 three. Gooden somehow got a shot to fall from the lane. James dropped in another three. The closest defenders wore Cavaliers jerseys. The game was tied. Outlaw saw what was happening and went right at James, dropping in a tough shot to give Portland back the lead. Portland got what they needed...James finally missed a shot, another 3...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 rimmed off, Portland had everything they needed in place. Well, everything except the willingness to put it in the hands of their most reliable 4th quarter performer, Outlaw...and when Blake's wide open trey rimmed out it was James time. Except he missed the lay-up.

So Portland set up their final possession. 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 they had a 1 point lead. Sure they had had numerous chances to extend it, had somehow survived a barrage of blown opportunities to claim defensive rebounds, had missed their open shots and then gotten no reasonable shot in their last possession, but they had the lead and 2 guys who had caused James problems all night.

So they instead 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 layin. Oh, it did not look uncontested. Three Blazer jerseys were within a couple feet of him. They just did not 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 Ilgauksas 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 from inside and he made them. He turned a poor shooting, average scoring loss into a decent shooting night, 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 their honors. Roy had a very good night...he rebounded well (7), distributed well (8 assists) and shot 7-16, totaling 16 points. But when it mattered, when he had to either score or identify the right person to get the ball he did not come through and defensively he was destroyed by James.

I am a huge Brandon Roy fan. His jersey is the first bit of apparel I have ever worn with any individual player's name on it. 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 a game where he did not take the steps an All-Star needs to. And as has been happening more and more often of late, none of the role players stepped up in his place to pull the game out.

This game was all about James. He scored 44% of the Cavaliers points, 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 4 assists, almost a third of their total of thirteen. 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 and this was a prime example.