Blazers dispatch Cavaliers, enter next 'chapter' of season
What's next for the Trail Blazers is as daunting as a climb up Mount Everest:
A four-game, five-day road trip that begins Friday night at San Antonio, with stops in Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City.
Four of the top eight teams in the Western Conference, with an aggregate record of 108-50.
"A big challenge," coach Terry Stotts observed after Portland's 108-96 victory over Cleveland Wednesday night at the Moda Center. "Four teams that are in the playoffs right now.
"I'm always reluctant to talk about a whole road trip. Right now, it's San Antonio. (The Spurs) have won six in a row. You can't look at the whole thing. If you're going to read a 2,000-page book, you can't look at the whole book. You have to read the first chapter."
The Blazers (29-9) enter the trip in a much better frame of mind than had they fallen to the Cavaliers (14-25), who were on the second of back-to-back games after a 120-118 win over the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night at Staples Center.
It was iffy for a long time. Through 45 1/2 minutes, the score was tied 96-96, and the Cavaliers were sniffing their third victory on a five-game trip that ends Friday night at Denver.
Then the Blazers clutched up, sinking their final four shots from the field, holding Cleveland to 0-for-6 marksmanship and closing the game out on a 12-0 roll.
"A lot of good teams are able to do that in the fourth quarter," Stotts said. "I think we're a good team. We have the confidence and the resolve and the determination to find a way to win in the fourth quarter."
LaMarcus Aldridge -- for most of the game waging a losing battle with his outside shot -- was the catalyst to the late run, scoring nine straight points as the Blazers seized control. That included a 3-point shot with the shot clock about to expire, giving Portland a 96-94 lead with 3:18 remaining.
Aldridge, who finished with 32 points (on 12-for-26 shooting) and 18 rebounds, is not exactly known for his 3-point prowess. The All-Star power forward is now 1 for 7 this season and 22 for 108 during his career from beyond the arc.
"At shootaround today, I told him to stop shooting 3's, because he'd never shoot them in a game," joked teammate Damian Lillard, who scored 25 points to go with six rebounds, five assists and no turnovers in a scintillating 36-minute display. "And he just happened to make that one."
"The (shot) clock was running down," Aldridge said. "I saw where I was. I'd been working on them all day, so I might as well shoot it. It went in. That's rare for me, but I made it."
After an Anderson Varajeo tip-in tied the score at 96-96, Aldridge made a pair of free throws, sank a 19-foot jump shot and converted a left-handed drive on Portland's next three possessions. Suddenly, it was 102-96, and when Wesley Matthews drained a 3 to make it 105-96 with 58 seconds left, it was over.
Very deflating, said Cleveland's Kyrie Irving of Portlands late-game marksmanship. But big-time players make big-time shots.
"When it's gut-check time and it's time to win a game, we've done a great job of doing that," Lillard said.
On a night when Aldridge's outside shot wasn't falling with regularity, Stotts was glad to see him attack the basket twice late.
"He had a lot of good mid-range shots that he usually makes a better percentage of," the second-year Portland coach said. "But the two plays he made going to the basket were aggressive, strong moves. He knew it was 'winning time.' You could see him with the determination to make the plays at the rim."
The Blazers head to Texas with the second-best record in the West behind San Antonio (31-8), a game ahead of Oklahoma City (28-10) and several games on the good side of both Houston (26-14) and Dallas (23-17). The Blazers are a collective 4-2 against those teams, having beaten OKC twice and San Antonio once, splitting two games with Houston and losing to Dallas.
"These are all good teams," Aldridge said. "We've beaten some of them. We've put ourselves in a position to be on these teams' level, or better."
"They're all winnable games," Lillard added. "We just have to go in with the mind-set that we're going to take care of business. We have to do all the things through the course of each game to make it happen.
"It's an opportunity for us to prove ourselves. It would be a tough trip for anybody in the league. We have a chance to go out there and steal some games. It should be fun."
Aldridge earned his 22nd double-double of the season and his 16th game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Lillard, who was 5 for 10 from 3-point range, has made at least four in an NBA-best 17 games.
Lillard, asked if the Blazers are hoping to win the most games in the West to get Stotts a spot coaching in the All-Star Game: "I doubt anybody in (Portland's locker room) has even thought about that. We're trying to win games and focus on who's up next."
Matthews, on Portland's defense over the final 2 1/2 minutes: "That's what we need to do for longer stretches. That last 2 1/2 minutes has to be for the last seven, eight minutes of each quarter. Where it's hard for (the opponent) to score, for them to get a rhythm. Then we won't have (close) games like that."
The Blazers made 12 of 21 shots in the fourth quarter, including their final five in a row. The Cavaliers were 9 for 26 over the last 12 minutes.
Portland shot .765 (13 for 17) from the free-throw line, its 26th straight game over 70 percent. That's tied for the second-longest such streak in franchise history.
The Blazers are 14-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 100 points.
Cleveland coach Mike Brown, on Aldridge: "He hit some tough shots down the stretch, came up with some tough rebounds for kick-out 3's. It discombobulated us a little bit. Then we missed some shots, and there was the ballgame."
The Blazers had three days off going into Wednesday's game, having not played since a 112-104 win over Boston on Saturday.
"We've had 15 guys for practice (on Monday and Tuesday)," Stotts said before the game. "In all my time in the NBA, I don't know if I've had 15 guys for practice in January. We've very good, competitive practices, have gotten a lot of work done."
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