Originally Published: December 17, 2013

1. Lillard's Big Shots Outdo Impressive Irving

By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Though this is of course arguable, many NBA scouts believe Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are the two best guards to arrive in the league from the past five drafts.

In an era that is being dominated by playmaking point guards, Lillard and Irving are prototypes because of their indomitable shooting abilities and nimble dribbling skills. Irving, the 2012 rookie of the year, quickly made a name for himself as a closer by hitting four game winners in his first two seasons (he now has five). Lillard, the 2013 rookie of the year, has four of his own now early in his second season. Three in the past month. Two in the past three days.

The Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers staged one of the best games of the season Tuesday night, and the two young franchise centerpieces were at the sensational heart of it. Irving scored nine points in the last two minutes and dropped off a deft assist in traffic with seven seconds left to Anderson Varejao for a game-tying basket.

Lillard-Irving
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsDamian Lillard kept finding a way to keep his team a step ahead of Kyrie Irving's heroics.

Lillard, though, had one of the best games of his career with a collection of numbers the league hasn't seen in 18 seasons. He capped it with a game-winning 3-pointer that he drilled from the edge of the center court logo with less than a second left. It gave the NBA-best Blazers a 119-116 win to improve to 22-4 on the season.

It was the last of Lillard's 36 points to go with 10 assists and 8 rebounds. The 3-pointer was his eighth of the night in 12 attempts, a new career best for him. Put all those numbers together -- a player who hits eight 3s in a game isn't going to have 10 assists too often, as you might guess -- and it was a performance that had not been seen since Jason Kidd in a game in April 1995.

"When you're playing against a top point guard, you don't really have a choice but to bring it," Lillard told reporters after the game. "Especially with a guy like [Irving] that's in attack mode on the offensive end. If I don't put my best foot forward, he could go out there and beat my team by himself on a good night."

There were some that dared to question Cavs forward Alonzo Gee, who was assigned to guard Lillard for the final shot because of his 6-foot-6 frame, for not getting up on Lillard after he'd already made seven 3s on the night. But those short-sighted commenters must not have seen Lillard hit a game winner Sunday night in Detroit, when he drove and hit a hanging pull-up over the top of a stunned Rodney Stuckey.

Those shots were extremely different in their nature but had the exact same effect: a chilled crowd that was hoping to taste a rare Eastern Conference win over the West's best; a rush of teammates to Lillard's side for congratulations; and a completely expressionless face above No. 0.

Irving had 25 points on the night, of which 17 came in the second half, and had his own 10 assists to combine with Dion Waiters' 25 points for a 1-2 punch that suddenly rang hollow.

It was the best moment of Lillard's night but hardly his greatest contribution. When the Cavs built an eight-point lead in the third quarter, Lillard nailed three consecutive 3-pointers to reverse the game. When the Cavs built a five-point lead in the fourth with Lillard on the bench, he came in and scored six straight points to once again give the Blazers the lead. Those runs, in a road game, were more impressive in their tenacity if not with the style of a dagger shot.

You could construct a case that the Blazers are a classic December bubble team, one that has gotten off to a great start because of circumstances. It is true that their 12-2 road record can be taken apart a little because only four of those games were against winning teams (they're 2-2 in them, both losses at Phoenix). You can point out that all of their statement wins over the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder have come at home. They're 7-4 against teams with winning records -- 5-2 at home -- and 15-0 against teams under .500.

These past two road steals -- neither Lillard game winner was a high percentage shot, though execution is all that matters -- leave the hint of an aftertaste that the Blazers are simply living a charmed life at the moment. Defensively, they continue to be a question mark -- they are the only team in the bottom 10 in defense in the league that has a winning record. They rely heavily on the jumper, taking nearly 70 percent of their shots from outside eight feet, which is often a dangerous proposition in the league.

But it's hard to accept that theory when watching the Blazers actually play. They perform with extreme confidence, and they've just been an offensive juggernaut. Watching the ball whip around the floor to find shooters who bomb away with accuracy and confidence is inspiring.

Two of their veterans, Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge, are in the midst of the best seasons of their careers. Aldridge had another huge game Tuesday with 26 points and 15 rebounds. Lillard's numbers have improved, too, though where his ceiling might be is unknown.

If the decision were made today, all three should be on the All-Star team, and that right there says enough about how this team is performing.

This start has led to some giant stats, like 13 straight games with 100 points -- the longest Blazers streak since 1994 and the best in the league this season -- and like Aldridge now already with 21 games with 20 or more points, best in the league. He also has five straight games with 10 or more field goals, something no one had done yet this season.

Overall, the Blazers are second in 3-point shooting, second in free throw shooting and ninth in overall shooting. Tuesday, they beat the Cavs with 18 offensive rebounds that led to a stunning 35 second-chance points.

This is all winning stuff.

The Cavs have now had fourth-quarter leads on both the Blazers and Miami Heat over the past few days but just weren't able to close them out. Before that, they had won five of six games, as they've turned their season around a bit over the past three weeks.

Irving and Waiters, who have been separated in the lineup, are playing much better now that they both get their own portions of games to control the ball. Once they figure out how to get the ball regularly to an improving Andrew Bynum -- he had 13 points in the first half and none in the second despite Blazers center Robin Lopez's major foul trouble -- they'll improve even more.

But, for now, the Cavs had to just get in line and take their loss from the Blazers, and Irving had to tip his cap to Lillard.

"That's what all great players want, that last shot," Irving said. "It was a great one."

Dimes past: December 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 15 | 16

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