Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets: Star Play Overcomes Hustle as Rockets Win

Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

James Harden and Jeremy Lin lead the Houston Rockets to an overtime victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in a game where star power trumped hustle.

It's not often I feel sorry for the Portland Trail Blazers.  At 42-21, they're having a fine season.  They've enjoyed good health.  Two of their players were named All-Stars.  When they've played well, they've generally won.  I do feel a little sorry for them tonight, though.  They didn't play a perfect game...far from it, in fact.  But they put in a solid effort for most of the 53 minutes this overtime contest took to resolve.  The Houston Rockets, on the other hand, looked unmotivated for 43 of those 53 minutes.  As it turned out, 10 minutes of effort was enough.  A miracle shot or two, a couple defensive lapses by Portland, and Damian Lillard fouling out of the game were enough to give Houston a 118-113 win in a game they trailed for the first 46 minutes and 30 seconds.

The first period of this game was typified by turnovers and whistles.  Sloppy play on both ends led to run-outs and layups.  The halfcourt offense belonged to the Blazers.  Portland made a couple early threes then attacked the rim against a spread defense.  They either converted or drew fouls.  Despite the referees indicating that they were going to call this game tight, whistling any ghost of a shadow of a bump on drives, the Rockets spent most of the first period attempting, and missing, threes.  The Blazers built a 20-11 lead before Houston finally adjusted, driving and drawing fouls themselves.  Three consecutive makes by Mo Williams in the final 95 seconds of the period kept the Rockets at bay but Houston still managed to close within 30-28 as the quarter closed.

The second and third quarters featured plenty of hustle and rebounding from the Blazers and almost laughable disinterest from the Rockets.  The only time the home team got fired up was when they perceived a bad call going against them...and there were plenty in those middle quarters.  (Again, the refs had signaled this from the outset.  Aggression was going to earn free throws.  But during this stretch the Rockets preferred complaints to gumption.)  The Blazers beat Houston to loose balls, offensive rebounds, and to the cup.  Portland's shots came in the lane, beyond the arc, or at the free throw line.  Only LaMarcus Aldridge broke that pattern by firing from the mid-range post.  Portland's reserves also settled for jumpers. Other than that, Portland's offense looked great.  Meanwhile the Rockets continued to hoist deep, dribbling down the clock for an eternity on each possession before attempting ill-advised shots.  Dwight Howard gave them brief respites, putting on a dunking clinic when single-covered, but the Rockets didn't find him often enough (nor did the Blazers leave him single-covered long enough) to make a difference.

The net result was a 96-83 lead for Portland as C.J. McCollum converted a layup with 7:30 left to go in the fourth period.  Down 13, carrying a season-low in assists, and running their offense with all the passion and alacrity of an algebra student solving story problems, the Rockets looked done.

Unfortunately the Blazers would miss 7 of their remaining 8 field goals as the fourth quarter wound to a close.  Their production was limited to 4 turnovers and a free-throw-shooting spree in the final 4 minutes, 12 foul shots attempted, 10 made.  The Rockets, meanwhile, came to their senses and decided they might actually want to participate in this game.  They took advantage of a small Portland lineup, stopping the flow of offensive rebounds and starting a large-scale rim attack of their own.  When they weren't making layups they were converting threes, mostly-open and suddenly falling.  The rush in the building became palpable as Houston closed the deficit and overtook the Blazers.  Portland obliged the Rockets by missing medium-to-long-range jumpers, in effect inverting the two teams' offensive positions from the first three quarters.

With 12 seconds remaining Wesley Matthews--to this point one of the heroes of the game--had a chance to put Portland up by 4.  He hit only 1 of 2 foul shots, leaving the door ajar.  James Harden smashed through it, tying the game with an improbable three with 8 seconds remaining.  The Blazers turned over the ball on the potential game-winning possession but Patrick Beverley missed the desperation shot at the buzzer.  To overtime we went.

With fouls coming early and often, several players carried foul trouble with them into the extra period.  You knew somebody was going to get disqualified.  The only question was, "Who?"  The Blazers got their answer with 3:39 remaining as Damian Lillard drew an elbow throw against Beverley on the drive.  This was particularly unfortunate for Portland for two reasons:

1.  Lillard had just hit a three, upholding his reputation as Mr. Overtime.

2.  Lillard's arm appeared to make little or no actual contact with Beverley, who nonetheless shot backwards like he had been hit in the nose with a two-by-four.

To be fair (a difficult task under the circumstances) the game had been officiated tightly and the referee making the call didn't have a clear view of the front of the play.  He certainly saw Lillard's arm extend on the drive.  He couldn't have missed Beverley's reaction.  It's hard not to put 2 and 2 together there and get 5.  We've also talked about the off-arm issue with the Blazers before, how we've seen Portland players use the clear-out more frequently as the year has progressed to the point where it's become a staple.  Aldridge uses it far more frequently on his dribble attack than Lillard does, making this whistle ironic.  LaMarcus had done far worse several times during the game and not gotten tagged for it.  Nonetheless, any time your off-arm strays you leave yourself open to this kind of call.  Lillard got tagged and to the pines he went.

The Blazers would manage only two Matthews free throws and one Aldridge 20-footer the remainder of the game.  Houston converted two close shots, a three-pointer, a 10-footer, and 3 of 4 free throws.  The actual elapsed court time since the Blazers had led by 13 was about 12 minutes and 30 seconds.  Emotion and momentum made it seem like a century.  The Rockets walked away with a 113-108 win, the Blazers with their second suitcase full of "might have beens" in as many games.

For all the drama, this game still boiled down to a few weaknesses biting the Blazers even when the rest of their game was solid.  They had trouble containing penetration and watching the arc at the same time.  Houston shot a modest 31%, 9-29, on three-pointers overall but considering they went 1-13 in the first half, that left an 8-16 rate after intermission.  During that same stretch Harden, Beverley, and Jeremy Lin all went off of them, scoring 41, 12, and 26 respectively...a combined 79 points out of the only three guards Houston played.  On a night when Dwight Howard scored only 17 the Blazers still allowed 52 points in the paint.  Portland also committed 20 turnovers...a chronic issue lately.

On the other hand the Blazers did a nice job with Howard when he wasn't dunking.  He attempted 10 shots, hitting 5.  He also had 13 free throws but hit only 7.  He was a thorn in Portland's side but hardly devastating.  The Blazers also grabbed 22 offensive rebounds, scored 44 points in the paint, blocked 10 shots, and did a good job adjusting their game to the officiating style and Houston's attack.  It took a phenomenal effort from Harden to keep the Rockets close.

For those curious, the final free throw tally ended up Portland: 26-33. Houston 33-45.

Individual Notes

This wasn't the most efficient game from LaMarcus Aldridge.  He shot 10-27 for 28 points but did draw 10 foul shots, hitting 7.  12 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a couple passable defensive stands against Howard spoke well of him.  But as the game wound down Aldridge started missing, allowing the Rockets to defend much more aggressively against his teammates.

Damian Lillard shot better tonight than he did in Dallas, hitting 7 of 13, 3-5 from distance, and 4-4 from the line for 21 points.  But this was still a shaky game for him.  He committed 7 turnovers, mostly when he appeared to develop tunnel-vision and got predictable in the offense.  To his credit, he came on late when the Blazers needed him.  He also gave more energy defensively tonight than we've seen in some games.  It feels like Lillard has been working on that aspect of his game more lately.

Wesley Matthews put the "shooting" in "shooting guard" tonight, attempting 15 shots and 13 free throws.  Unfortunately he also put the "off" in "off-guard", going 5-15 overall, 4-11 from range.  Granted, 36% is an acceptable mark beyond the arc but, as happened with Aldridge, Matthews' shot deserted him just when the Blazers needed help to unbalance the defense as the game wound down.  Still, Matthews's third-quarter shooting performance and his 12-13 free throw rate netted him 26 points.  He also had 3 steals on the night.  Then again, Harden scored that 41 with 10 rebounds and 6 assists.  That wasn't all on Matthews but when Harden needed a bucket, he could usually find one against Wes.

In my living room I have an LED lamp that bleeds from one color to the next through the whole rainbow, creating a semi-pleasant atmosphere on winter evenings.  That lamp reminds me of Nicolas Batum.  At the beginning of the season he was a scorer.  Sometimes he's the assist guy.  Then he's a defensive specialist.  Now he's a rebounder.  He grabbed 12 boards tonight, 5 offensive.  He also dished 6 assists, so he hasn't bled out of that color completely yet.  But he committed 7 turnovers in the process.  He attempted 10 shots, hitting 4, and scoring 8...not quite enough.  His defense didn't make much of an impact either.   The Blazers needed more of a white-light performance tonight.

Robin Lopez continues to do as well as can be expected, grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking 5 shots, shooting 4-7 for 11 points.  He didn't get huge dunks like Howard but he didn't let Howard get that many huge dunks either.  Plus he all but matched Dwight on the boards and helped limit him to 17.

Mo Williams played as many bench minutes as his fellow teammates combined tonight.  After that torrid run at the end of the first period his shooting stroke went south.  He finished the night 5-15 for 10 points.  He handed out 11 assists to only 3 turnovers but Houston presents hard matchups for Mo...one of the many reasons they're a bad opponent for the Blazers in general.

C.J. McCollum played an active 15 minutes and scored 7 points with 4 rebounds.   It felt like C.J. was in "What the heck, why not?" mode out there.  He knew somebody needed to score.  He knew he could do it.  So he did.  It's the right approach for him at this point.  Play to your strengths, try not to over-think or look over your shoulder.

Thomas Robinson had 4 rebounds  in 11 minutes.

Meyers Leonard had a fairly neutral shift, hitting a jumper and grabbing 3 rebounds in 8 minutes.  "Fairly neutral" is fairly good for Leonard.

The Blazers get a travel day before going back-to-back against Memphis and San Antonio on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Boxscore

Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review in which soaring is followed by crashing hard.

The Dream Shake

Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Memphis are HERE.  Tonight's Answers: Thomas Robinson played 11 minutes, Mo Williams scored 10 points, the Blazers won 3 quarters, and Dwight Howard committed more fouls than Meyers Leonard.

Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveDeckard and keep up with everyone and everything on-site @Blazersedge

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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