Whoa, this was an exciting game...easily the most thrilling contest of the young season and perhaps since Brandon Roy left the team. Anybody who just wants to enjoy it on its own merits without too much analysis, I totally understand. Go with my blessing. :::making the sign of the holy Three Goggles:::
For those who want or need a quarter-by-quarter recap before diving in, Timmay's is HERE.
In the abbreviated preview to this game we kept things short and simple. We said the Blazers had to defend a little bit no matter what, but that this game would be decided by how many easy looks the Blazers gave up to the Rockets. Make Houston play honest and the Blazers win. Give Houston freebies and the Blazers lose.
Those freebies and easy looks came aplenty for the Rockets for about two and a half quarters. The Blazers committed twin sins of turning over the ball and not getting back on defense. Whether in tandem or separately, these trends created two pillars upon which the Rockets stood as they systematically demolished the Blazers, building a 16-point lead. We saw some of the usual problems with players making moves outside their comfort zone and skill set, leading to fumbles and picks. The Blazers also invented new ways to blow the game. When you see a guard launch a three from the top of the arc, miss, and then that guard is nowhere to be found when the opponent runs back the ball for a layup attempt you just have to shake your head. It was bad.
The other serious issue for the Blazers--the third pillar for the Rockets on their way to victory--was Omer Asik. This guy was eating the Blazers alive on the boards and creating pressure inside on offense which either allowed him to score or kept his teammates wide open. This looked like the shortcoming that sealed the deal for the Blazers. Leaks on the run were one thing, but a constant leak in the paint was too much to overcome.
One of the perils of fielding a young team, though, is not knowing how they'll play. Sometimes that's game by game but often it's minute to minute. The match doesn't always light under Portland's firecracker, but when the fuse hits and the explosives go off, they go off big. Game-long star Nicolas Batum went off like a Roman Candle in the fateful third period and the Blazers rallied around him. All of a sudden the turnovers dried up, five guys got back on defense, and Houston drives that had created and-ones in the first half were now ending in charges. Like demolition experts the Blazers blasted away at the lead three points at a time, bomb after bomb finding the mark. Now Houston was rattled and Portland was benefiting from turnovers. Batum, Matthews, Lillard...the hits just kept on coming. The defense remained sweet and opportunistic through the fourth quarter and overtime. Problems arose with rebounding and missed outside shots. The Blazers solved the former by contesting shots harder. They never kept the Rockets off the boards so they just kept making them miss. They solved the latter by re-discovering LaMarcus Aldridge who gave them enough of a lead in overtime to bring them home. When the final horn sounded the Blazers had escaped with a 2-point win courtesy of some great defensive play in overtime. Anyone who switched off the game in the second quarter would be shocked.
On paper it's going to look like offense won this game. In a sense I suppose it did. Some of those second-half threes were near-magical. Portland shot over 51% for the game and hit 10-25 from beyond the arc, 40%. But the real number here was the 46.6% clip that Houston shot from the field. That doesn't seem like much of a defensive achievement from the Blazers, but the Rockets were shooting 50-obnoxious% for much of this contest. Houston had 50 points in the paint, but precious few of them came late. The Blazers committed 18 turnovers...again on paper a bad number. But it shines brilliantly when you consider that only 2 of them came after the third period horn sounded. The Blazers corrected themselves, fought hard, and showed enough poise to win. That's the overall storyline from this game.
That doesn't mean that fascinating individual stories were absent. In fact they abounded...
This was the best game Nicolas Batum has played in recent memory, perhaps ever. Let's forget the points for a minute. He came out from the opening tip ready to rebound and defend. His body language, energy, and drive demonstrated that he was into this game the moment he took the floor. Having created that environment for himself, his natural game blossomed. It showed in how hard James Harden had to work for his points. The coaching staff made a great move tonight, keeping either Batum or Wesley Matthews on Harden at all times. Batum responded like a champ. He rebounded hard early, finishing the game with 6 boards. He blocked 5 shots on the night including possession-saving, game-saving monster blocks at the end of the fourth period AND overtime both. And now we can get to his shooting. It was like Samantha twinkled her nose and Batum literally could not miss for most of the night. He was taking obscene three-pointers in the second half and draining every one. Evidently Darren shook his finger at Samantha and made her change the world back to normal as regulation closed, but instead of folding into his shell Batum just played harder on "D". Also--and this is significant--when the Blazers' offensive magic had run out in general during that overtime period Batum was the one who calmed the team down with a hand wave, demanded the ball, and got the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge--heretofore ignored by the happy-shooting wings--in the post. Batum ended the night 13-19 from the field, 5-8 from the arc, with 35 points total. It was just a brilliant effort.
LaMarcus Aldridge hit his face-up shots early then went cold. He heated up again along with his teammates and provided the offense that provided the different in overtime when the Blazers looked like they might give the game back to Houston. Aldridge also drew 9 foul shots on a night when they were obviously available. He finished 11-19 for 29 points with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Damian Lillard was nothing special early but began to dominate after Batum had re-ignited the offense. Lillard scored almost all of Portland's points headed down the stretch in the fourth. He also got the call for the final shot in regulation which could have won the game for the Blazers. He put up a rather weak fade-away three attempt, so that needs work. But it was interesting that Damian, among all the hot hands and proven players, got the nod there. (I may be reading too much into expressions, but Aldridge may not have been entirely thrilled about this, particularly since the shot missed.) All things considered Lillard also did fairly well defensively, although we must note that his teammates have figured out where and when they need to help him and that help is coming with regularity now. The result is fewer points for point guards but more open shots for shooting guards and small forwards on the other team. In any case, Lillard scored 27 on 9-18 shooting, 3-9 from distance, 6-6 from the foul line. Those foul shots show he was driving some, but he could probably shave down those three point attempts and penetrate more. He does tend to rely on the deep shot as a default, which it shouldn't become for him. Lillard also had 5 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals.
Wesley Matthews guarded James Harden along with Batum and did a credible job. This was one of the first times we've clearly seen the heralded Matthews-Batum defensive tandem peak together. Though his shot was off (6-18 from the field, 2-7 from the arc, and an inexcusable 1-5 from the foul line) his energy stayed high. He also put the period on the end of Portland's great night when he committed an intentional foul on James Harden in a loose ball situation with less than a second to go in overtime and the Blazers up 3. Harden was trying to pass to the three-point arc for a last, game-tying attempt. Matthews' foul was astute and showed how into this game he was. 15 points, 5 rebounds, and a rare 5 assists for Wes tonight.
J.J. Hickson still rebounded like a tiger when he was in the game but he had all kinds of problems with Asik, as mentioned above. He played 25 minutes and grabbed 7 rebounds. His difficulties opened the door for...
Meyers Leonard, who got the honor of finishing regulation and playing overtime at the center position in this game. Those looking for breakthrough moments for Leonard, this is your first. The coaching staff looked at Asik, pointed to Leonard, and said, "Go. You're our man." Leonard stepped up on the boards, nabbing 8 in 27 minutes. His defense wasn't perfect. He made several mistakes, including a couple huge ones while trying to cover screens. But he played a step above Hickson when defending Asik. He also hit a nice baseline step-in jumper and took a sizzling alley-oop pass from Lillard which he had to dunk with his trailing hand because he was flying by the rim so fast. That was amazing to see. It should have been a botched catch or uncontrolled throw-down. Instead it was one of those, "Oh my goodness!" moments that brought the crowd way beyond their feet. One of the hidden stories of the early season is that Lillard and Leonard seem to have an affinity for each other on those passes. It's like Lillard says, "I'm going to find you even when everybody else doesn't," and Leonard says, "I'm not going to let you down on the finish." 8 points, 8 rebounds, a steal, and a block in 27 minutes.
Ronnie Price was one of the few players who didn't get the chance to redeem themselves tonight. All the Blazers contributed to poor play at one time or another. Even Batum got out of control at times. But Price had trouble defending, couldn't shoot, and didn't get the team into an offense. Plus he committed 4 fouls in his 11 minutes of court time.
Jared Jeffries started out his 10 minutes of play making me wince on a couple of perimeter defensive plays. The write-up I had was that his only job is to go out there and not make mistakes while the starter are resting and he wasn't quite doing it. Just as my pen scratched the final letter on the notepad Jeffries started getting tough, drawing a couple charges on the same drivers who had butchered the Blazers all game. He hyped up the defense and put some backbone into it. Shows how good first impressions are. Let's hope this inspires more such play as the season progresses, as it's what we expected from Jeffries but haven't gotten yet.
Victor Claver was the first forward off the bench tonight. He looked active and happy for the brief moments the Blazers played zone and got to show off a little dribbling on a flashy possession. Otherwise it was a nondescript 9 minutes for him. At least his body language is way more aggressive than most of his mates on the bench.
Sasha Pavlovic got 7 minutes, getting the call in the second half as Claver had in the first.
The Blazers had a nice huddle mid-court at the end of this game. They knew what they had pulled off. Considering they were staring over the edge of a cliff walking into their last game in Sacramento, it was nice to see the camaraderie and confidence...to see them reminding themselves that they want to win games and are capable of doing it.
The BOXSCORE for this game.
The Dream Shake will tell you what this game looked like from the other side.
Portland Trail Blazer tickets for all games are available from Blazer's Edge sponsor TiqIQ.