When the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Portland Trail Blazers tonight, both teams will receive a much-needed boost from returning players. Blazers starting point guard Damian Lillard has missed five games due to a right hamstring strain while Isaiah Thomas has yet to make his Cavaliers debut due to a hip injury.
Basketball Insiders’ Moke Hamilton wrote that Thomas’ return will only make the ascending Cavaliers better. Thomas’ return is well timed as Cleveland is currently mired in a three-game losing streak and could use the type of spark a healthy Thomas can provide.
“It’s been a frustrating and tough process, but at the same time, you have to trust it,” Thomas told reporters after a New Year’s Day scrimmage. “I just attacked it every day to try and get better and now that day’s here. I haven’t played in so long, I’m happy it’s here.”
Thomas said it may take some time to recover his feel for the game after missing so much action.
“My hip is better but I have no rhythm,” said Thomas. “I have no feel for the game right now. I’ve been out so long, it feels like I’ve lost my powers. So even though we’re out there scrimmaging, I can move around and do what I want but I just don’t have my powers yet. With the games coming, it’s going to give me an opportunity to get my rhythm back, get my feel back.”
Thomas added that, after the offseason trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston and landed him in Cleveland, his new teammates are encouraging him to be himself in his approach to the game.
“They’ve always said, even when we’re scrimmaging today, ‘stop passing, be you, be aggressive and look to score,'” said Thomas. “So that always makes you feel comfortable that they want me to be who I am. They traded for me for a reason, and that was to play the game that I know how to play.”
Meanwhile Jason Quick with NBC Sports tweeted that Lillard could have played in Monday’s win over the Bulls but opted to wait for tonight’s game in Cleveland to avoid starting his return with a back-to-back.
Lillard said he could go tonight at Chicago but decided to sit out because he doesn’t want to initiate his healing hamstring in a back-to-back scenario. Says “I plan to play” Tuesday in Cleveland.
— Jason Quick (@jwquick) January 2, 2018
Portland went 3-2 in Lillard’s absence, with the only bad loss coming against the league-worst Atlanta Hawks. Coach Terry Stotts said after the win over the Bulls that the offense has not been clicking, but he was glad to bounce back with a win over Chicago.
“We’ve struggled a lot of the season with our offense,” said Stotts. “On the heels of our last game, this was a good one. Chicago, they’re not necessarily a team that forces a lot of turnovers, unlike Atlanta.”
The Hawks, despite their rebuilding woes, lead the NBA with 15.9 turnovers forced per game. The Blazers got 25 assists against the Bulls versus only eight turnovers after being nearly even in those categories in Atlanta. Lillard’s return should help stabilize the team’s ball handling, which wasn’t good against the Hawks.
“After a good win, you’d like to build on a good win against Philly,” said Stotts of what frustrated him after the loss against Atlanta.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said that Thomas will be on a minutes restriction and will not play in back-to-backs as Cleveland manages his return to action. And, according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, Kevin Love is questionable for tonight’s game after being held out of practice due to an illness.
#Cavs Kevin Love (illness) is questionable for tonight's game vs. Blazers. He did not attend shootaround this morning.
— Chris Fedor (@ChrisFedor) January 2, 2018
While the Love situation will be one to monitor, the Cavs are ecstatic to finally get one of the major pieces it received in the blockbuster trade with Boston. The Trail Blazers also get a major piece back in Lillard, and how well they perform in the coming weeks could be a major indicator of how those teams will finish the season. The Cavaliers and Trail Blazers have big ambitions, and they will need all their pieces to accomplish everything they hope to.
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