Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets: LaMarcus Aldridge Trumps Dwight Howard

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the Western Conference's better teams met tonight when Portland and Houston clashed. The Rockets brought the marquee center in Dwight Howard but LaMarcus Aldridge outshone him as Portland claimed the 111-104 victory.

The Portland Trail Blazers avenged their only significant home loss of the season tonight, besting the Houston Rockets 111-104 in a game where continuity and game plan proved just as important as matchups.

Neither team had a smooth start to the evening.  LaMarcus Aldridge started out missing every shot he took.  This bogged down Portland's offensive attack, almost as if they were flooring the gas without any wheels on the vehicle.  Nicolas Batum stepped in with points and passes while Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams added their usual shots.  But wing scoring alone can't buoy the Blazers and they only managed 21 points in the period.

The Rockets, meanwhile, looked like they were playing in mud.  Some of this was Portland's defense.  Batum made life tough on James Harden, Portland's nemesis in the earlier loss.  The Rockets also chose to go 1-on-1, barely making a significant pass and never for a scoring opportunity.  Going against Portland without moving the defenders is a bad idea no matter who you are.  Houston did get a fair number of shots right at the rim, but many of them got bothered by 2 and 3 defenders because the Rockets never made the Blazers think about anything else.  Dwight Howard made a couple shots but did an awful lot of standing and staring as well.  His motivation in this game cycled like moon phases.  As a result Houston managed only 20 in the first quarter.

The Rockets shifted gears a little in the second.  They got more shots in the lane, sped up the tempo for some breaks, and took advantage of some poor defense from Portland's bench.  They rebounded well, a good way to put the Blazers back on their heels.  They also figured out that Portland was going to single-cover Howard in most situations and actually started going to him.  He delivered 8 points and seemed to perk up from his first period Sominex-fest.

But Houston couldn't deliver on the defensive end.  They over-committed to double teams and their weak-side defense was...weak.  Secondary defenders never rotated.  If they did move to cover the middle nobody picked up the arc on the far side of the court.  Portland alternated outside shots with nifty little flick passes to Robin Lopez when his man gave help.  Aldridge also got on track in the period, letting everybody heave a sigh of relief.

The Rockets ended up making up a bucket in the second, taking a 1-point lead into halftime.

The Blazers finally came alive fully in the third, scoring 14 points in the first 4:06 of the period.  Aldridge keyed the run but Lopez also made hay when the Rockets tried to stop it.  He did a great job catching the ball in space and finishing tonight.  The Blazers also prospered on the offensive glass early in the quarter.  Meanwhile Howard drifted backwards past sleepwalking into just plain quitting.  With the Blazers locking up Harden, Houston managed nothing.  The Blazers slapped a 10-point lead on them by the time the run was finished.

Unfortunately 8 minutes of the third remained and Houston rejuvenated their big man by giving him the ball in the offense once again.  Still single-covered, Howard made hash of Lopez and Portland's defense, scoring in the lane again and again.  A couple of threes in the quarter got Harden back on track too.  Portland's lead evaporated and the game was tied at 76 entering the fourth.

At this point the Rockets made a curious decision, electing to rest Harden and Howard at the same time.  The Blazers came out ready to throw haymakers and take control of the game.  Without their two stars, the Rockets had about as much force behind their punches as Clarabelle Cow.  The Blazers bettered their third quarter start, scoring 13 points in 3 minutes this time.  The Rockets managed only 3 on a single set of free throws.  Houston reinserted Howard and Harden posthaste but by the time either one got a decent scoring look their team was down 10 again.  The brace of All-Stars helped the Rockets fight back to within 2.  Chandler Parsons would provide the only other scoring for the remainder of the period.  But Houston suffered from near-criminal spacing on offense and every shot that wasn't a Howard dunk came hard.   Meanwhile the Blazers played their game:  Aldridge keying the attack, Batum hitting the obligatory fourth-quarter outlet three, Matthews working hard for his points...in this case inside, even.  If the Blazers weren't a well-oiled machine at least they looked like they had played together before and maybe enjoyed it.  The Rockets left you wondering.  Spirit and chemistry beat the All-Star attack and Portland walked off the court to streamers and their 19th victory of the season.

The most impressive stat of the night might be the Blazers keeping up with the Rockets blow for blow on the boards.  Each team finished the game with 15 offensive rebounds.  Portland won the overall battle 52-48.  The Blazers shot poorly from the arc, making only 8 of 27 threes (30%).  But once again they made more free throws (25) than the opponent even attempted (24).  On the one had this was a little odd considering Houston outscored Portland in the paint 66-36.  On the other hand, when you hear TNT's Charles Barkley call the Blazers a "jump shooting team" you have to put a small asterisk by the claim, understanding that those free throws represent attacks by Portland into the lane more than they represent jump shots.  The label is basically correct, but there's a wrinkle.

But as we said in the open, this game was as much about continuity and chemistry as matchups or statistics.  The Blazers kept it together, executed their game plan, didn't get afraid when Houston made a run, and kept picking each other up...covering for each other on defense and getting reasonably good opportunities on offense.  Houston had the Howard no-show moments.  They watched Harden shoot under pressure.  Some of that was him but some was clueless play from his teammates.  They'd work to get him a mismatch on the wing against a point guard or big man then they'd run not one, but two men from the weak side right into his driving lane.  Rockets were bumping Rockets all night long on offense.  Howard and Parsons fought each other for a rebound early in the third, accidentally knocking it away from each other, then both just stood as the ball bounced to Aldridge and he put it home.  The two just stared at each other with Howard gesturing angrily at his teammate while the opponent got an easy deuce off of their miscue.  You got the feeling that even the Howard-inspired runs came because that's what came easiest to them.  If you have any doubt that chemistry is a key component to Portland's success this year, watch this game again.  When things get hard you'll see the difference between a team that just plays harder in response and a team that quits.

Individual Notes

As if you needed another reason to like LaMarcus Aldridge this season, he scored 31 on 12-22 shooting and grabbed 25 rebounds in this game.  Aldridge was superb, particularly on the glass.  And this was after a slow start in which he and Howard guarded each other to a near-standstill.  Watching the two of them tonight, there's no doubt in my mind which of these two players I'd rather have captaining my team, and it ain't Howard.

Damian Lillard and Patrick Beverley resumed their battle from the last meeting, providing background fireworks while other players took the fore.  Lillard didn't defend well tonight on anybody but Beverley.  With that guy, though, he seems to have a chip on his shoulder.  And Beverley returned it.  Lillard scored 8 points but shot only 1-10 from the field.  Beverly scored 9 on 3-10 shooting.  Beverley had 11 rebounds but only 2 assists while Lillard dished 6 dimes.  Suffice it to say it was not Lillard's best night.  But it was kind of fun to watch.  Keep an eye on this when the two teams meet again.

Nicolas Batum did a heck of a job when assigned to Harden and equally well on Parsons...key players for the Rockets.  This was one of his best defensive displays of the season.  He also managed 15, 6. and 6 in 38 minutes, keeping his Swiss Army Knife reputation alive.

Wesley Matthews provided key scoring, particularly in the fourth quarter.  This was doubly impressive since his three-point shot was not falling tonight (2-8).  He made up for it with well-timed drives, scoring 18.

This was the perfect Robin Lopez 2013-14-Season-in-a-Capsule night.  Matched up against Dwight Howard in single coverage he got destroyed.  Howard struggled a little early and Lopez did contest a few shots but mostly it was an all-night ATM machine.  Howard scored 32 on 14-22 shooting with 17 rebounds.  But Lopez kept working his way into Howard's game like an annoying sand crab pinching his butt.  The sand crab is not going to scare you. You could crush it without thinking.  But how long can you carry one down the back of your shorts before you start getting annoyed and distracted by it?  Lopez annoyed Howard enough that Dwight never could strut during his impressive outing.  Robin grabbed 10 rebounds himself and added 16 points on 7-9 shooting when the Rockets rushed to double.

Mo Williams wasn't much defensively tonight but he did hit 5-10 shots, scoring 13 with 4 assists.

Dorell Wright shot only 2-6 but both were threes, making it OK.  In fact it was more than OK because the Blazers needed those threes to fall at some point during the evening.

Joel Freeland played 13 minutes and snagged 3 boards but otherwise didn't really look like he belonged in this game.  Neither did Thomas Robinson aside from his 2 rebounds in 5 minutes.  It was just too choppy of a night for either of those guys to find place or rhythm.

Boxscore

Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread review, in which Charles Barkley no doubt got barbecued.

Speaking of, what was up with that hot mess at the TNT coverage desk?  They had five guys up there: Ernie, Shaq, Chuck, Kenny, and Chris Webber.  Every one of them besides Ernie looked like they had OD'ed on Howard's sleeping pills or just didn't care.  They had continuity issues, nobody got to speak enough, Shaq had no clue about time cues, and collectively they had all the appeal of a barf-covered biscuit.  I had started to like TNT over the last season or so because they finally started joining the Western Conference half of their double-headers on time (or close enough).  I may have to revise that estimation if this keeps up.

It'll be interesting to see what The Dream Shake makes of this outing.

See your Jersey Contest score and enter the form for Saturday night's game in Philly HERE.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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