PORTLAND — The Trail Blazers can push snooze on the alarm all morning if they so please. They get a day off to rest and recuperate — and it’s about time.
On Wednesday, the Blazers returned to the Rose Garden court after a tough overtime loss in Denver the previous night.
They did not — or, maybe could not — match the play of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And though the Blazers fought back from a large deficit, they took the 93-88 loss.
The Blazers (20-19) have now dropped four consecutive close games, but the previous three losses came at the hands of teams with winning records.
The Cavaliers won’t be sitting at the same lunch table as the Thunder, Warriors and Nuggets anytime soon. Yet, this Cleveland team (10-31) outplayed, outhustled and outpaced the Blazers.
Center J.J. Hickson, one of three starters who finished with a double-double, said that he will start Thursday by sleeping in a bit longer and icing his knees. He’ll enjoy the rest but won’t go as far as blaming fatigue for the Blazers’ performance.
“That would be the cop out thing to say,” said Hickson, who played 30 minutes and 40 seconds and finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds. “We’re not the only team that plays back-to-backs.”
“It would be too easy to say that. We’re trying to be a no-excuse team, that’s something the coach has been pushing since training camp.”
While Hickson refused to blame exhaustion, small forward Nicolas Batum had a hard time explaining why the Blazers — who have four starters averaging more than 35 minutes per game — started the game so sluggishly and trailed 17 points by halftime.
“I don’t know, we played a lot of games, a lot of minutes the last couple of days so its kinda (tiring) but we’re ready to play,” Batum said. “We don’t want to use (fatigue) as a excuse but sometimes we’re tired and we’re still winning. We can’t use it when we lose a game.”
In a matchup between two of the league’s best young point guards, Cavaliers’ second-year player Kyrie Irving outperformed Portland rookie Damian Lillard. Irving started strong and finished even better. As the final seconds ticked away, Irving drove towards the basket, and bobbled the ball as Lillard slapped at his wrist. The Blazers bench wanted a travel, but Irving collected his dribble, turned and shot a tough jumper over Lillard to give Cleveland the 89-86 lead with 26.5 seconds remaining.
Irving finished with 31 points on 13-of-24 shooting and also contributed five assists and four steals.
“I like him aggressive,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said, “period.”
Irving, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, nearly outscored the Blazers through a stretch in the first quarter. When Irving canned an 18-foot jump shot at the 3:05 mark, his Cavaliers led by double digits. Irving had 13 points, the Blazers just 14 points. Only Batum’s catch-and-shoot touch — he knocked down consecutive 3-pointers before the end of the quarter — pulled the Blazers within an approachable 26-21 deficit.
The spark, however, did not carry over as sluggish and sloppy moments blemished the second quarter.
The low-post protection bowed to rookie Tyler Zeller, allowing him to score on three consecutive possessions. Transition defense was not much better. After one head-scratching exchange between LaMarcus Aldridge and Batum, Cleveland’s Irving ended up with the ball and headed a 3-on-1 fast break. That particular bad pass came during a span of four turnovers in a row as the Blazers committed 12 in the half.
Cleveland entered the game with the second worst record in the league, but even the Cavaliers could pounce on a lethargic opponent playing its second of a back-to-back.
Dead legs and deflated energy cost the Blazers as they lagged behind the Cavaliers 53-36 at halftime.
However, the Blazers remained true to character and worked back into the game by the fourth quarter.
When Lillard — who made just three of nine field goals for 13 points — pulled up for a mid-range jump shot with 2:07 left in the game, Portland had its first lead since the first quarter. But in a flash, Irving answered with a long jumper of his own and Cleveland recaptured the lead and maintained it for the victory.
“We can’t win them all but we have to win games at home and games we have a chance to win when we’re down close to 20 points,” Hickson said. “We’re in good spirits. We have another one coming up, and we got to get that one. On to the next one.”