Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets Game 2: LaMarcus Aldridge Blows Away Rockets Again

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard brought the first-quarter thunder for the Houston Rockets but Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge brought the rain all night long as the Trail Blazers defeated the Rockets and walked out of Houston with a 2-0 series lead.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Blazersedge,com would like to open the recap of the Portland Trail Blazers' 112-105 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of their first-round series by presenting tonight's game flow in screenplay form.

Characters

Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets Center

LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers Power Forward

Narrator (presented without quotation marks for easy identification)

Act 1, Scene 1: Toyota Center in Houston, Texas

We open our story as the ball sails into the air at tip-off of Game 2 between the Por...

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!

Yes, we know that.  But if you'll just wait a se...

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge

Two of you.  I see.  Let's not get out of hand here.  Back to the narrative.

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!  RRRAAAWWWR!

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!

OK.  I can see you two are scoring at will.  But really we should have some semblance of team play here.  It is, after all, a 5-on-5 game.

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!

I'M DWIGHT HOWARD!

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

Yes...20 apiece midway through the second.  Very impressive.  But really we're quite off-script.  What about the James Harden character?  What of Damian Lillard, or Chandler Parsons and his amazing predictive powers?  These are the things of which plots are made.

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

We know.

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

Yes.  You've stated that.  Repeatedly.  Now if we could just...

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

OK!  We get it!  Where did that Howard fellow go?

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

Hush!  This isn't Rain Man!  Would you please...

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

Look, we're in Houston.   This will go much better if we diversify.  Let the other characters have a chance!  Can any "Rocket" character take the stage, please?  Anyone?

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

WILL YOU STOP IT?!?  This is getting annoying and repetitive and frankly BARELY believable.

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

Someone get Howard back on stage.  Now!   This is supposed to be a dialogue!

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

Now look what you've done.  Everybody is leaving and the play is not even over yet.  I hope you're happy.

I'm LaMarcus Aldridge.

I give up.

And "give up" is just what the Houston Rockets ended up doing tonight.  After riding Dwight Howard and his crushing 19-point first quarter to a 31-23 lead, they rode Howard's foul trouble, ineffective defense, mediocre rebounding, and a second straight horrific game from James Harden down the sewer of abject defeat.  Howard was the hurricane in their sails through the first 20 minutes of the game, then their ship became a submarine, buried by Aldridge's 18-28, 43 point tsunami.

That performance cannot be overstated, by the way.  He IS LaMarcus Aldridge, and that name is now synonymous with back-to-back 40-point performances in the playoffs, a feat unmatched in Trail Blazers history.  Just as impressive: the Rockets kept bigger players on Aldridge most of the evening, so those points came on a variety of jump shots, each deadly and each eliciting a groan from the Houston crowd and progressively-louder amazement from national television commentators.  Aldridge didn't just carry his team to victory tonight, he loaded them in a rickshaw, gave them a tour of the city, cooked them dinner, gave them a pedicure, and arrange for a V.I.P. meet-and-greet when they arrived.  He...was...everything.

Whether the Blazers needed Aldridge's fantastic performance because the rest of their results were mixed or the rest of their results were mixed because Aldridge spent the game on his tour de force is a matter for debate.  Collectively their contributions are best described as "opportune" rather than "overwhelming".

--Damian Lillard shot only 3-14 from the floor but did what he needed to do: hit a couple of threes to keep the Rockets at bay, dish 11 assists, help out with 8 rebounds, and not fail on defense.  Lillard did earn 12 foul shots for the second straight game, hitting 10 en route to 18 total points.  One of his biggest contributions was not even thinking about taking the ball or spotlight away from Aldridge.  It should be noted that in playing with Aldridge instead of instead of or in competition with Aldridge, Lillard was able to achieve something that Houston's James Harden did not.  He actually contributed to his team's victory on an off-night instead of ensuring its doom.

--Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews had poor shooting nights (7-22 combined, 1-8 from distance, only 15 points between them) but kept the defense steady and, like Dame, kept the engine running despite the lack of touches.  They threw themselves across the court to stop whatever mischief the Rockets started brewing, like covert agents letting others take the credit and taking pride in a successful mission.

--Robin Lopez got brutalized by Dwight Howard in the first half.  When he wasn't tangling his shoelaces in Lopez's hair on dunks, Howard was grabbing rebounds, hitting short shots...he wore himself out scoring the ball.  But Lopez kept the Blazers from getting annihilated on the boards, grabbing 10, 4 offensive.  Lopez also helped keep the Rockets shooting slightly tougher layups at the rim instead of putting it in confidently.

--Portland's main scoring help came from the bench, with Mo Williams and Dorell Feels-So-Wright scoring 13 and 15 respectively.  Williams had a shaky evening overall, defense and turnovers plaguing him.  But he did shoot 4-8.  Wright hit 3 of 4 from long distance and drew 4 foul shots in 18 minutes.  Wright and Williams were the only Blazers to shoot above 30% from the arc.  Their marksmanship propelled Portland to a 35% rate overall from distance and helped the bench avoid the usual death spiral.  Thomas Robinson did his part as well with a couple nice defensive plays but he also had 4 personal fouls in 7 minutes.  Not to be outdone, Joel Freeland collected 4 personal fouls in 2 minutes.  #benchdepth

When you look at Houston, you see that single, glorious, Howard-driven quarter followed by three periods in which the Rockets fell apart like a lame SNL skit.  Howard's ongoing foul trouble provided one root cause.  The Blazers could not handle him, especially when he started swatting shots and rebounding like the once-upon-a-time in Orlando version.  Everything the Blazers did well, he did better.  Except that the combination of stamina and whistles picked up defending smaller players kept his contributions limited to the first half.

Howard's outburst was enough to keep the Rockets ahead early and within 7 points at the close of the game, but the utter and systemic failure of his teammates and coaching staff kept Houston from getting any closer.   Chandler Parsons got tagged hard for claiming he was the best small forward on the floor prior to this game, but that wasn't his most erroneous prediction.  That distinction belongs to his comment after Game 1 that the Rockets had played as poorly as they possibly could.  Game 2 gave the lie to that.

--Except for Howard's moments of brilliance and a couple physical stands from Patrick Beverley, Houston's defense was completely forgettable in this game.  They avoided doubling Aldridge at all costs, even when it became apparent he was not going to miss a shot this side of the final buzzer.  Playing the odds on those jumpers is admirable, sticking to your guns more so.  But Kevin McHale played alongside Larry Legend.  He watched first-hand as Bird went into the unconscious, unstoppable zone.  McHale did the same himself upon occasion.  The only way you curb that kind of night is keeping the ball out of the superstar's hands, forcing him to pass when he does touch it.  You'll take anyone else beating you besides That Guy.  This should have become apparent to McHale and company somewhere around Aldridge's 25th point.  They let him get to 43 instead.

--Even when Aldridge wasn't singlehandedly destroying them, the Rockets looked like they just didn't care much on the defensive end.  Even if you excuse the times they left Aldridge (Aldridge!) wide open, how do you justify the standing around, the failed containment, the lackadaisical board work?  The Rockets ran fast enough towards the offensive end of the court.  They put energy into their dribble drives.  They just didn't have it anywhere else...in a critical game.

No play typifies this more than the one with 39 seconds remaining in the fourth period.  Houston had just crawled back to 104-100, fighting a four-point deficit with a little over half a minute left.  The situation wasn't promising but the game wasn't over.  They needed a stop or a quick, intentional foul.  Instead they fell asleep and let Matthews score behind them easily, bleeding 6 more seconds off the clock and putting the margin back to a half-dozen.  They didn't recover.

--When Howard flagged in the second half the Rockets had trouble finding offense.  Their vaunted three-point shooting failed them, in part due to the diligence of Portland's wings.  A 3-16, 19% clip from the arc will not get it done for them.  Nor did their 30 free throws provide them an advantage, as Portland attempted 27 (albeit 6 late off of intentional fouls).

--Chandler Parsons bears some responsibility for Houston's offensive struggles.  He missed multiple attempts right at the rim.

--Neither did the Rockets play well off of Howard.  It's not just that he seldom passed.  Nobody made themselves available after he touched the ball.  Eventually the Blazers were able to send extra men to help against Howard with impunity as his teammates tossed it to him and watched instead of setting up angles for the return pass and open jumpers.  The few times Howard did get away a clean pass his recipient was w...i....d...e open.  It could have helped, but as with most things tonight, the Rockets never bothered enough to make it count.

--Those were just the appetizers.  Here's the entree.  The lion's share of the blame for this loss falls once again on the shoulders of James Harden.  Harden turned in his second mentally-deficient performance in a row, this time without even the 27 points as a counter-balancing excuse.  Harden scored 18 on 6-19 shooting but appeared hesitant every time he touched the ball, often making blindingly-poor decisions.  When the defense gave him the drive he froze in place and then shot over the top.  When he had a clear jumper he dribbled until the defense closed and got stuck in traffic.  When the Rockets needed a quick shot he bled clock.  When they needed a measured possession he jacked it.  It was like opposite day in Harden's head.  His 5 turnovers stand testimony to his struggles, his 6 personal fouls providing salt in the wounds.  If he is going to be a playoff star he had better turn up the wattage pretty soon.  So far he's been a net negative for his team.

But this is exactly what the Blazers wanted to do...their dream scenario, and not just because of the twin wins on the road.  Before the series we compared Harden and Howard to doubles tennis players, supremely talented but more used to singles work.  The proper strategy against any duo on the tennis court is to put the ball down the middle, making them decide who's going to take it.  The Blazers have done exactly that with Howard and Harden.

It starts with Portland's offense, where Howard is being asked to make up for the mistakes of his wings and/or the inability of his fellow bigs to contain Aldridge.  This costs him fouls and energy.

Portland's point production also puts pressure on Houston's offense to keep pace.  That pressure calls the question, "Whose team is this?" and gives it extra urgency.  On one possession the answer is Howard, on another Harden.  But it's either-or.  Caught in the crucible, they haven't worked it out, nor worked together.  Howard scores, gets tired, but doesn't pass the torch.  Harden grabs the torch, isn't in the flow, and ends up sticking it up his nose.  Everybody's working.  Nobody's working together.

The situation got exacerbated between Games 1 and 2 when Howard stepped up and took responsibility for the team, saying in effect that he'd show what he was made of.  He did exactly that tonight...with the effect of pushing Harden off the sideline of that tennis court.  I'm not sure it's coincidence that two days after Howard claimed the Rockets as his team and himself as the focal difference-maker, Harden's difficulties redoubled.

Good news piles upon good news here for the Blazers.  The Rockets have shown that they're not winning with just one superstar, no matter how well that superstar does.  They haven't taken a single step towards resolving their problems, those problems now seems to be bleeding into stunted offense from their supporting cast, their defense isn't making up the difference, and the pressure that's exposing all this is only going to get worse with the move back to Portland.  Game 2 was a sorta-must-win for them.  Game 3 is a really, really must-win.  They've built leads in both of the games so far and not been able to hold them.  Not only must they come up with a good performance in the third game, they have to make it stick, watching over their shoulders the whole way.  Victory under those conditions is a long walk from where they are right now.

Make no mistake, the Rockets are still something of a sleeping giant.  This series can still turn.  But it appears the giant is less asleep than having some kind of stroke where the right hand and left hand aren't coordinating and vertigo is threatening to send it to the floor.

Houston had better come up with a better scheme against Aldridge than just sending single men against him in succession, if nothing else to put a different wrinkle in the defense and to force some of the poorer-shooting Blazers to try to carry a game...or just a quarter.  The Rockets had better up their intensity to Game 1 levels on the boards and to Game "We-Haven't-Seen-It-Yet" levels on defense.  James Harden had better get his head out of his Underoos and figure out a way to contribute even if he can't be the man all the time.  Dwight Howard had better find and use an open passing lane occasionally.  If those things don't happen that giant won't ever get to its feet and this series is going to be short.

In one of the preview pieces I did with The Dream Shake I opined that the Rockets were a good enough team with particular--and in some ways unstoppable (cf. Howard tonight)--advantages against the Blazers, but that they better not screw around and leave Portland daylight because the Blazers will turn that around on you quickly.

The Rockets have not only screwed around, they've flat screwed up.  They've not only left Portland daylight, they've lounged around drinking Jack and Cokes while the Blazers walked out into it, figuring Dwight would take care of it and, if not, they could always bring Portland back under control.  Now the Blazers are loose.  And now the Rockets are in trouble.

Tonight LaMarcus Aldridge faced down Howard's best charge, grabbed his outstretched arm, and judo-flipped him rear-end over teakettle.  If that didn't get Houston's attention they don't deserve to be called a team.  But even if it did, they're starting from behind, organizing against a Blazers squad already in formation and halfway home themselves.  That's a bad situation for the road team, a really nice one for the team anticipating their next two games at home.

Two down and two to go, Blazers fans.  Let's see what happens on Friday night.

Timmay's instant recap

Boxscore

The Dream Shake

Belated congratulations to LicensetoLillard who won our April Jersey Contest!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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