The first quarter was a marvelous tour de force for Portland. The ball whipped around on offense. Screens freed shooters who drained jumpers in less than an instant. The Blazers were stepping high, walking proud, shooting pure. Houston's defense looked impotent before long-range daggers thrown by Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Dorell Wright. LaMarcus Aldridge beat a steady thud-thud-thud with his post play, making sure Omer Asik knew that being one of the best defensive centers in the NBA didn't qualify him to guard a premier power forward. The Blazers could do no wrong, marching to 31 first-quarter points. All this while Robin Lopez turned in his period of the season on the other end, leaping and shoving, knocking heads and blocking shots, making sure everybody knew he was in the paint.
That was the good news. Some news was...less good.
As the Blazers screened for open jumpers, the Rockets screened for cuts and shorter shots equally effectively. Portland couldn't do much more with Houston's picks than the Rockets did with Blazer picks. Despite Lopez's heroic attempts, Dwight Howard blistered the paint for 10 points in the opening quarter, plus a gunnysack full of rebounds. Howard's production was exceeded by James Harden, who pasted 13 on the Blazers in the first 12 minutes. Once again the Blazers allowed the opponent to shoot over 50% from the field. Once again the paint became a playground for the bad guys.
The end result: The Blazers shot 6-9 from beyond the arc, did almost everything right on the offensive end, played with energy and confidence and devil-may-care abandon all to earn a lead of...1 point. Portland led 31-30 after one.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist figure out which is more sustainable, 6-9 three-point shooting or Dwight Howard dominating the paint and James Harden scoring like hotcakes.
You knew this game was going to turn eventually, but "eventually" became "right now" when a slightly-fatigued-looking Lopez picked up quick whistles in the second period and had to sit. Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright played really well for Portland off the bench tonight. Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard played sad trombone. The defense suffered, the rebounding went to heck, and without any scoring threat on the inside the Rockets were free to harass Portland's jump shots. No threes for Portland equals no scoring for Portland. The Blazers ended up down 5 at the half.
It looked like the Blazers had a chance in the second half as Houston picked up two fouls in the first 20 seconds. Had the guys in white been able to capitalize, earning easy buckets at the stripe, perhaps the constant leak of points in the paint wouldn't have turned deadly. Instead the balance tipped the other way. Lopez picked up more fouls and sat again. Howard went crazy, playing like a man among hamsters. The Blazers couldn't grab an offensive rebound to save their lives and had trouble at the other end as well...at least enough trouble to keep them from running any up-tempo offense. Houston had no such difficulty. After Howard spanked the Blazers for a while the Rockets started running. Then James Harden went crazy some more. All this time the three-point well remained dry for the Blazers. Houston picked up 6 more in the third period and despite playing their 4th game in 5 nights, extended the lead even more in the fourth quarter. Even wasting the first 10 seconds of every possession they still managed to hold off Portland with one hand while riding their stars and the occasional fast break to an easy victory.
After hitting 6 of their first 9 three-pointers the Blazers would connect on only 4 of their next 22. Adding to their woes, they shot only 19 of 29, 65.5%, from the foul line. The threes evaporated, foul shots betrayed them, the fast break points ran 19-6 for Houston, the points in the paint ran 54-28 for Houston, and though the Blazers forced 20 turnovers from the Rockets Portland's final points from turnovers advantage ended up only +3. There's no amount of talent, no backup plan, no bench heroics, no lifted prayer to the heavens that's going to turn that into a win.
Meanwhile Houston ended up shooting 55% from the field despite a 6-22 rate from the arc. James Harden scored 33. Dwight Howard scored 28 with 13 rebounds. Portland's point guard tandem of Damian Lillard and Mo Williams had an excellent night, scoring 30 on 11-29 shooting. But Houston's much less heralded pair of Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverly scored 24 on 9-17 shooting. Even Portland's advantage wasn't really that much of an advantage.
This continues the story of Portland's season so far. The Blazers' three-point shooting has to go right in order for them to win. They have to keep the fast break deficit down. They have to hit their foul shots to manufacture easy points. They probably also have to find at least one more edge...on the boards, maybe in turnovers. Meanwhile they have to limit the exposure of their bench bigs. These things all have to go right because you know the Blazers will be giving up a large number of points in the paint and a high shooting percentage. The game is like a constantly-deflating hot-air balloon--the points in the paint and high percentage for the opposition equaling a rent in the side--into which the Blazers constantly have to pump flaming shooting, energy, board-work, et al just to keep the thing from collapsing. The Blazers can win games. They have the talent and skill to do so. But there are so many ways they can also lose them. Every game this season is going to be a mad dash trying to keep the vulnerabilities from costing more than the strengths produce.
LaMarcus Aldridge went 9-19 for 21 points in 36 minutes, playing some at center due to Lopez' foul trouble and the general inadvisability of leaving any other big man out there for long. Aldridge produced strong early, looking like he has all season. As the Rockets locked down with big bodies he had a harder time getting free. Once the three-point threat ceased he found himself shooting over length or trying to force something inside against a packed lane. Plus he had to bang against bigger players on the other end. That's not his forte. This was his least remarkable game of the season and he still produced 21 points.
Damian Lillard did his best work from the arc, shooting 4-9 from range en route to 22 points in 42 minutes. Damian's new-look energy defense wasn't in evidence much tonight. He got screened, left his big defenders vulnerable, seemed to be trying to win the game with offense. This could be a result of the big minutes. More likely it's his fall-back when things aren't going Portland's way.
Nicolas Batum was the only Portland defender who could actually stop a Houston scorer for half a second. He traded off on Houston's wings to decent effect. His own offensive game wasn't sterling, scoring 13 with 4 assists in 37 minutes. He only had 3 rebounds and he did commit 3 turnovers but he also had 3 steals.
Wesley Matthews shot well (6-12, 3-8 from distance), scored well (19), and continued to stake a claim for being the third option in this offense. He's certainly more confident during this first stretch of the season than he was for any extended stretch last year. He got tortured by James Harden tonight though. 33 points scored for Harden, 5 fouls for Matthews. It's not a fair one-on-one matchup anyway, but Portland couldn't afford to send much help without exposing themselves. Wes got left on an island and it sunk. Typical of the good news-bad news night.
Robin Lopez had his best quarter as a Trail Blazer in the first period of this game. He was intense, focused, had his hands everywhere including on one block of Howard that no doubt left Blazer fans chortling with glee. As has been somewhat characteristic, though, Lopez couldn't put in four quarters at the same level. So far he's tended to have one great shift, one decent, and one unmemorable. Tonight he put in the great stuff first. When he started picking up fouls things went south. But that isn't an accident. The Rockets went at him more intentionally, obviously with Howard but also by putting pressure on the perimeter defenders. Lopez swing arms trying to stop layups is going to draw whistles. The game tipped when Robin was out in the second and then fell apart when he sat again in the third. He ended up with 18 minutes on the evening. He had 6 boards and 3 blocks in those 18 minutes, which was fantastic, but the Blazers can't survive that many fouls from him in that little time. They just don't have the depth to cover when he takes a seat.
Mo Williams and Dorell Wright both played aggressively off the bench with Williams earning 7 assists and Wright hitting a couple threes and playing his usual good defense. Williams only shot 4-12 but somebody needed to provide that scoring spark and he tried. His 4 turnovers and 4 fouls are less defensible, but this is part of the Mo package. Wright had a couple of steals. Combined with the threes that made his outing more memorable than most. It was nice to see him shine a little.
If defense and rebounding were bugs, Meyers Leonard would be the Orkin man. He kills both. Dead. Thomas Robinson is not that much more effective. The Blazers were forced to run a small lineup tonight--which could be Robinson's specialty--but he couldn't stay in it long. Either Lopez better figure out how to stick in every game for 38 minutes, Joel Freeland better stay healthy and extra-productive, the Blazers better get another center from somewhere, or this is going to be a long season of learning. Leonard did hit a couple jump shots but frankly Howard was just letting him have them.
The good news for the Blazers is a back-to-back series with Sacramento on Friday and Saturday. They have two days to regroup, practice, and prepare. Though centers are causing the Blazers no end of trouble and DeMarcus Cousins is definitely a center, Sacramento is an easier opponent than San Antonio or Houston. We'll see if they can overcome the difficulties of a two-game series and build some momentum over the next few games before preparing for their first big road trip of the season.
The Dream Shake covers the Houston side of the story.
Stay tuned for Ben Golliver's Media Row Report from the Moda Center.