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Another nail-biter, another loss for Blazers

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge winces as Portland falls at home to Cleveland.For much of the early season, the Trail Blazers have lived a charmed existence with the score close and the game on the line.

After last Thursday’s 92-90 victory over Miami, Portland was 5-0 in overtime games and 11-2 in games decided by six points or fewer.

Fast forward to Wednesday night at the Rose Garden, when Cleveland was the team making the plays down the stretch in a 93-88 victory over the Blazers.

It was the fourth straight loss by Portland (20-19) — all by six points or fewer.

And suddenly, the bloom seems off the rose.

“We’ve played a lot of close games,” said Portland’s Damian Lillard. “At the beginning of the season, we were winning them. It was good for us if we could get into a close game.

“Now we’ve had a rough stretch. Four close games, all against good teams. We just ended up on the wrong side of the score.”

Well, three good teams — Golden State, Oklahoma City and Denver.

The Cavaliers (10-31) are somewhere between brutal and woebegone, especially with the NBA’s No. 1 rebounder, Anderson Varajeo, out another 6-8 weeks after knee surgery.

But with Kyrie Irving leading the way with a 31-point barrage, the Cavs had just enough to pull out their first win on a five-game trip that concludes Saturday at Utah.

“They played harder than us,” Portland’s Wesley Matthews said. “It’s hard to beat a team jumping out to a 17-point (halftime) lead. We fought back; we just didn’t finish.”

Irving was sensational, sinking 13 of 24 shots from the field and scoring eight straight points in a late flurry as Cleveland relinquished all of a 19-point second-quarter lead but came back to win.

The anticipated duel between last season’s rookie of the year (Irving) and this year’s leading candidate for the award (Lillard) never materialized. It was no contest, with Irving the game’s dominant figure and Lillard hardly a factor.by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - Cleveland's Kyrie Irving twists for a jump shot over Portland's Damian Lillard in the battle of point guards Wednesday night at the Rose Garden.

The Blazers were playing the second of back-to-back games after an overtime loss at Denver Tuesday night in which four starters played 43 minutes or more. Portland’s Nicolas Batum — who nearly had a dubious triple-double with 23 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high nine turnovers — mentioned fatigue, but Matthews was having none of it.

“No excuses,” the Blazers’ shooting guard said. The Cavaliers “played better than us for a half.

They played hard. They just outplayed us. They looked like the fresher team. They came in our building with a game plan.”

The plan was apparent an hour before the game, when coach Byron Scott met with the media and said his No. 1 objective was to slow down Lillard.

“If you kill the head of the snake, the rest of the body dies,” Scott said. “We have to do something to disrupt (Lillard) as much as possible.”

So Scott used 6-6 small forward Alonzo Gee — and later, 6-7 point guard Shaun Livingston — to defend the 6-3 rookie. Lillard never got going, starting 0 for 5, making his first basket early in the fourth quarter and finishing with 13 points on 3-for-9 shooting. Gee’s harrowing presence, in particular, seemed to take Lillard out of the game.

“Any time somebody picks you up fullcourt and denies you the ball, it’s tougher,” said Lillard, who had seven assists in his 36 minutes. “I just played the game.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - The Cleveland Cavaliers made guarding Damian Lillard their priority on Wednesday, putting a bigger player on him as much as possible, and Lillard wasn't able to score from the field until late in the game.“With the way that they played, I took what they gave me, made the plays I thought I should make. I didn’t try to force anything.”

“They put a big body on him,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “That’s a compliment to Damian and how important he is to our team. They made him a priority. But Damian is patient enough to know his opportunity with the ball is going to come back.”

Never really did Wednesday night, though.

Portland got off to its customary slow start, falling behind 19-8 early. Irving had 15 points in the first quarter as the Cavaliers were off to a 53-36 advantage at intermission.

The second half was a different story, the Blazers gradually reeling in the Cavaliers and finally going ahead at 86-85 on Lillard’s 18-foot jumper with 2:07 to play.

Irving’s 20-footer put Cleveland back on top 87-86 with 1:50 left. Tristan Thompson — who had 19 points and 14 rebounds in place of Varajeo — missed a pair of foul shots with 1:10 to go, but the Blazers turned it over at the other end. Irving came back with a falling bank shot from 10 feet, and the Cavaliers were ahead 89-86 with 26.5 seconds on the clock.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s short jumper made it 89-88 with 22.4 seconds left, but Irving’s two free throws gave Cleveland a 91-88 lead with 19.7 seconds to go.

J.J. Hickson missed two foul shots with 14.9 seconds remaining, and when the Cavaliers’ Tyler Zeller converted a pair at the other end, it was over.

“It was a very good effort the second half,” Stotts said, looking at the bright side. “The first half, Cleveland played harder and better than we did. But we fought.”

The last eight games, Portland has been involved in games decided by six points or fewer. The Blazers won the first four, lost the last four.

“We’ll take being 4-4,” said Matthews, who had 17 points and six rebounds. “We’re not happy with it. We could have won every single one of them. But that’s how the ball bounces sometimes. We’ll turn it back around.”

“We have to get back on track as far as making plays in the last two minutes of the game,” Stotts said. “I’m pretty sure that will happen.”

Of the four straight losses, this one hurt the most, in part because the Cavaliers entered the game with the second-worst record in the NBA.

“That, and to lose again on our home floor hurts,” Lillard said. “But they’re an NBA team. You can get beat any time. They came here and they beat us tonight.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: MEG WILLIAMS - Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum had 23 points and 12 rebounds, but also a career-high nine turnovers in the loss to Cleveland.NOTES — The second game of Portland’s five-game homestand is Saturday night against Milwaukee. ... The Blazers matched their longest losing streak of the season, shooting .392 from the field, their fourth straight game under 40 percent. ... Portland’s bench — by far the lowest-scoring aggregate in the league — combined to make 2 of 18 shots and tally seven points. “I was really pleased with the bench,” Stotts said. “Everybody’s going to look at the fact that they shot (2 for 18), but ... they brought energy and they played well.” .... Hickson (13 points, 11 rebounds) had his 22nd double-double, Aldridge (15 and 10) his 17th. Aldridge also had four blocked shots. ... It’s the first time since January 1979 that eight straight Portland games have been decided by eight points or fewer. ... Cleveland won despite shooting .386 from the field and .235 from 3-point range and getting outrebounded 54-40. Portland won the board battle 32-15 in the second half.