Even in defeat, Cavs display several signs of continued rise

Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters scored 18 points for the Cavaliers Wednesday night.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

Random thoughts on the Cavaliers’ 108-96 loss at Portland on Wednesday:

— You can’t be too disappointed with this one. The game was tied at 96-all and then the Cavs just sort of ran out of gas. Actually, there’s no "sort of" about it. The Cavs may not have won this game at full strength, but even Mike Brown conceded that the win over the Lakers the previous night may have played a role. "We looked like we were tired, like we were gassed a little bit," he said.

— On the bright side, the Cavs’ energy and effort were there. Everything was there, actually, except for closing out quarters. With studs like LaMarcus Aldridge (32 points, 18 rebounds) and Damian Lillard (28 points, five assists), the Blazers are excelling in that department. As we saw Wednesday, the Cavs have a ways to go.

— As an interesting aside, and perhaps this is nothing but a coincidence, but the Cavs gave up big first halves to smaller guards in each of their previous two games — then contained the guard in the second half. Lakers guard Jodie Meeks erupted for 18 in the first half of the Cavs’ win Tuesday, but was limited to eight in the second half. Also, Lillard scored just eight of his 28 after halftime. Perhaps Brown and the Cavs are making some needed adjustments. Now if they could just start the game that way.

— Either way, as I wrote in Wednesday’s pregame notebook, opposing point guards have been putting up huge numbers. That’s not all on Kyrie Irving. But there is a breakdown in the system somewhere. The offense starts out top and so does good defense. If you can rattle the point guard, you automatically make everything considerably more difficult for the opponent. Instead, the Cavs are allowing opposing points to pretty much do whatever they wish.

Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson dunks the ball over Portland Trail Blazers center Joel Freeland at the Moda Center.

— Still, overall, the Cavs have looked much better since the Luol Deng trade, winning three of their past five. (They’re 2-2 with Deng in uniform). Again, this was hardly a bad loss. It could even be considered a moral victory. The Blazers (29-9) are among the top three or four teams in the league right now, and were coming off four days of rest. They were also at home. The Cavs (14-25) won a tight road game the previous night. Yet their only major flaw Wednesday was not scoring a basket in the final three minutes, and allowing the Blazers to score 12. "I thought our guys competed," Brown said. "That’s something we’ve been harping on."

— Deng has been a basketball godsend. He’s far and away the Cavs’ best defender and at a very crucial position — out on the wing, where so much offense is generated these days. Deng can even defend point guards from time to time. Offensively, he’s shooting very well. He scored 27 against the Lakers and 25 against the Blazers. You also have to be impressed with how well the ball moves when he gets touches. He’s the opposite of a ball-stopper, yet he manages to score. Deng is an underrated passer and basically, just the efficient type of guy Brown has wanted at the small forward spot all along.

— Dion Waiters (18 points) has also been very effective. He still tends to dribble too much, but hey, he’s a scorer in the truest sense. He’s one of those guys who needs the ball. Waiters is doing a much better job of consistently taking it to the basket, which results in good things for all involved. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing and not pout when things aren’t going well. As good as he is, people within the organization (especially his teammates) can grow weary of his perceived moodiness.

— Tristan Thompson (10 points, 10 rebounds) did OK, or at least as much as he could, considering he had to try to deal with Aldridge all night. Thompson only took eight shots (making four). His improving offensive game has probably warranted him a minimum of two more shots each night, and probably closer to five.

— Yes, it’s taken me this long to get to Kyrie Irving. He scored 21 points, which was second-highest on the team, and again, had several magnificent moments. But overall, I’m worried about him. Not majorly concerned — but worried. He just doesn’t seem like the same player. I know. I keep saying that, and I’m sure it’s getting old. But in order to keep your team on the rise, at least historically, your best player has to buy into everything you’re doing and lead the way. That doesn’t appear to be Kyrie right now. Things could change, but the offense doesn’t seem suited to his skills. Nothing is coming easy for him. That’s different than his first two years in the league.

— Finally, Anthony Bennett didn’t play for the second straight game. Beforehand, he told the Plain Dealer he’s open to getting some run with the Cavs’ D-League affiliate in Canton. I was against such a maneuver a week ago. But if he’s not becoming a better player or more promising prospect than Earl Clark in practice, then you probably need to consider other options. How about sending Bennett to the Charge when the Cavs are in town and have a stretch of home games? You could schedule it so Bennett plays in Canton on the Cavs’ off-nights, then call him back up for the NBA game.