The Houston Rockets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 116-101, at the Moda Center on Tuesday, dropping Portland's record to 2-2.
Rockets All-Star guard James Harden has maybe the happiest feet in the league, and they get him in trouble sometimes. He might lose track of them when he's supposed to be trailing his man on defense, he's a prime candidate for referees looking to hit their "shuffled his feet traveling call" quota, and he Eurosteps his way into a charge every once in awhile. But those happy feet produce a lot of magic, and they delivered the dagger in this one, swinging the door shut with three minutes remaining.
"Stepback" undersells the volume of Harden's motion on his signature shot, especially when he's uncorking it in tense situations. The leap he made to clear himself from Wesley Matthews with 7:24 left left is usually seen only when third-graders are trying to clear puddles, and no kid can really make the unnatural look this natural. Leaping back to his right, again, Harden knocked down a three-pointer over Nicolas Batum with 2:57 left, a shot that put Houston up 108-97 and sent many in the Moda Center to the exits early.
That was the backbreaking conclusion of an entertaining match-up, a battle with Harden that left Matthews visibly frustrated with the referees during the game and careful with what he said, and didn't say, afterwards. A master at selling minor contact (and non-contact) during his follow-through, Harden was rewarded with free throws on multiple occasions, at the expense of Matthews, who felt he was closing out on the shots fairly. Things came to a head midway through the third quarter, when Harden thrust his chin back and up, strongly suggesting post-release contact. Matthews was dinged with a personal foul and, when he disputed the call, a technical foul.
"He's clever," Matthews told Blazersedge wryly, when asked if perhaps Harden was guilty of simulating contact. "He's a clever offensive player. I'll leave it at that. The ref blew the whistle on what he thought he saw. I obviously wasn't happy about it. That's it."
Harden's head bob could trigger a flop warning from the league office, but there was little Matthews could do besides vent and stare into space.
"I felt like I was playing with five fouls all night," he said. "There were a lot of whistles. That's it. They shot a lot of free throws."
Harden finished with a game-high 33 points and he and Dwight Howard, who tallied 29 points and 13 rebounds, made for an unstoppable pairing on this night. If Harden wasn't bulling his way to the rim or finding mid-range seams, Howard was spinning for lobs or exerting his influence against Portland's smaller lineups.
In truth, it wasn't even Matthews who had the worst time with the officials; Blazers center Robin Lopez found himself in foul trouble from the second quarter on. After a solid first quarter, which included 3 blocks in 10 minutes, Lopez picked up his third foul with three minutes to go in the second, his fourth foul less than a minute into the third, and his fifth foul less than two minutes after he checked in with 2:39 remaining in the third. That last one sent him to the bench for good, as Blazers coach Terry Stotts elected to play small ball during his comeback bid before eventually throwing in the towel.
"You want [Lopez] out there," Stotts said. "He has an impact on the game defensively. We ended up going small and trying to score some points, him getting in foul trouble, having to have [LaMarcus Aldridge] guard Dwight. That's part of the game, those things happen."
All told, Lopez managed 0 points, 6 rebounds 3 three blocks in 17 minutes, and Portland -- who was without reserve forward/center Joel Freeland due to a hip injury -- conceded 54 points in the paint, including 10 field goals from Howard inside five feet, and lost the rebounding battle, 47-30.
"Maybe I let it get to me too much," Lopez said of the fouls. "I can't let that affect me the next few games."
That did seem to be the case. His last two fouls in particular were regrettable. The fourth was the most unfortunate, as it came outside the three-point line as he was setting a screen. His fifth was a fairly violent conclusion to an end-to-end sequence that saw missed lay-ups by both teams. Both fouls, which essentially removed him from the game, should have been avoided considering the opposition and the stakes.
"I think it's a little bit of both [technique and bad luck]," Lopez told Blazersedge. "The refs they see different things. Obviously I'm very biased in these situations. The refs often see different things from you, they're on a different part of the floor. Que sera, sera."
The foul trouble forced Meyers Leonard into real action for the first time this season. After playing just one minute combined in Portland's three games, the second-year center was thrown to the Howard/Omer Asik wolves, with predictable results. Houston's guards regularly singled him out as the focal point of their attack, whether through direct drives or pick-and-roll situations. They challenged him on the boards, too, and he managed just 6 points and 2 rebounds in 14 minutes.
"I came out and I was really anxious, I hadn't been in in a game yet," Leonard told Blazersedge. "To start off against Asik and Dwight is a pretty big challenge. I thought I did alright. I can't remember getting scored on one-on-one on the block. I missed a couple of rebounds, a couple of defensive cues, as far as letting Dwight get behind me for that lob whenever Harden came off."
Even during a down year last season, Howard feasted against the Blazers, and Leonard made it clear that he feels the Rockets' All-Star center has taken his game to another level.
"You can tell he's worked on his post game," Leonard told Blazersedge. "He scored with both hands around the rim, sweep through to the basket. Grabbing offensive rebounds and dunking comes very easy to him. His presence in the paint, to be able to rebound and block shots, is pretty significant."
Houston opened up its lead with a 15-2 early in the third quarter, diligently getting at-rim looks and free throws, as Lopez watched from the bench. On the other end, Portland never had a player catch the type of spark that everyone seemed to share during the home opener. Damian Lillard scored a team-high 22 points, Aldridge finished with 21 points and five rebounds, and Matthews added 19 points, but Portland shot just 41.4 percent as a team.
Portland failed to grasp hold of the game even during its best stretches, like a 13-5 run early in the fourth quarter. Sloppiness and tentative play were issues, and the abundance of whistles both ways (the teams combined to commit 55 fouls and shoot 63 free throws) may have disrupted Portland's rhythm.
"No moral victories," Aldridge said, when asked about the Blazers' late flashes of life that went for naught. "I think our offense affected our defense tonight."
Perhaps, but the Houston model -- stars who can score, role players who can stretch the floor, a total team understanding of what is and isn't a good shot -- will put up points against just about anyone.
Harden, the engine of it all, made headlines this fall when Kevin Durant suggested that his former Thunder teammate should be ranked above Dwyane Wade in SI.com's Top 10 Players of 2014 list. Rather than deferring to his elder colleague, Harden ran towards the discussion, agreeing that he should be regarded as a top 10 player.
"He's up there," Matthews conceded, after getting an up close and personal view. "He's a good player. He's a good player, a really good player."
But what about that stepback? How does it compare to Kobe Bryant's turnaround, or Dwyane Wade's Eurostep, or Manu Ginobili's behind the back space clearing jukes, or Joe Johnson's jab step?
"I'm not going to rank his step back," Matthews told Blazersedge. "Sorry."
Fair enough. Watching it unfold, and then hearing the whistle, was sufficient punishment for one night.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 17,491, which is roughly 89 percent of capacity. Lots of empty seats.
- For the many of you that have reached out with questions: Blazers.com will be running online streams of CSNNW games for fans who do not have access to CSNNW and live within Portland's NBA-designated region. Full details (as they stand now) are right here.
- I wrote a season preview for Portland Monthly Magazine and it includes some cool art from Matthew Hollister. It's finally online here.
- Don't forget: There is a screening of the "Lenny Cooke" basketball documentary in Portland on Wednesday night. I hope to see you there.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBACIRCLETODAY.
- The Moda Center fans are engaging in what appears to be an absolutely beautiful group protest against the switch from the Chalupa to the McMuffin. The timing of the 100-point shot/chant was tough because Harden took the life out of the building with his three-pointer, but very few fans (if any?) chanted "Mick-ee-dees!" along with the scoreboard instruction. The silence continued for multiple possessions before the Blazers finally went over the top for 100 points, despite Ronald McDonald himself appearing on the jumbotron to encourage the fans. Just amazing.
- As I joked on Twitter, filmmaker Michael Moore will be on the next plane to Portland to interview the first group of Americans that has ever have dared take such a massive, public, united stand against free McDonald's food. This is history.
- A number of fans have contacted Blazersedge expressing frustration with the McMuffin promotion, as the free coupons are only valid for a few days. Totally reasonable thing to get upset about. A free bonus should come with as few string attached as possible. That needs fixing.
- It will be very interesting to see how long the resistance to the "Mick-ee-dees" chant continues. Given that it wasn't organically generated by fans and was instead suggested by management, I'm personally rooting for it to never catch on. An indefinite refusal by the entire arena to acknowledge the replacement item is just an amazing tribute to the history of the Chalupa. If you're in on the revolt against The [Red-Haired, Clown-Faced] Man, keep it up.
- The much-ballyhooed "Toyota Free Wifi" needs to call AAA for service and repairs. Once again I was unable to log on, and even the media's password-protected wireless network had serious hiccups during the game. I guess it could be worse: The AT&T Center in San Antonio had major issues during Game 3 of The Finals. Still not sure how I made it through that stress in one piece.
- Nicolas Batum had a nice chasedown/pin block early.
- Meyers Leonard was right: Dwight Howard's left hand is looking better than ever. That outstretched move coming across the paint is a game-changer.
- Here's how LaMarcus Aldridge felt about the smaller line-up (Aldridge at the five plus four shooters) that was used late: "It was fine. It was just what we had to do to match up with them. We made a run with it but it just wasn't good enough tonight."
- Here's how Wesley Matthews felt about the smaller line-up: "We had to match-up. They were playing small ball, we played small ball. Robin was in foul trouble. He was doing a great job on Dwight before that. That's really the first time those extended minutes with each other, it's still a learning process. It got us back into the game, we just couldn't get over the hump."
- Here's Matthews on how he felt he did against Harden: "I felt I was doing my job. Getting in, playing physical, three foul calls were the same way, the fourth one I'm not even sure what I did. The one against Dwight, I'm not sure what happened on that fifth one. I wouldn't change anything I did. I made him shoot contested shots, he made two of them, he missed one of them, they blew the whistle on three of them. I don't know."
- Here's how Meyers Leonard saw his first extended run: "I came in and got a couple cheap fouls right off the bat. I think I was just a little too over-anxious. I just have to remain solid. I ran the court as hard as I could. Tried to contest every shot at the rim. I thought I did alright. My first shot was rushed and I barely hit the rim, luckily it came back and I got the offensive rebound. I felt like I got in a little more of a rhythm. It was my first game of this year and I think I was a little anxious, jittery. I calmed down once I got back in the game. Still a lot to work on. I need to watch some film. With their ball screens, I let Dwight get behind me one time, a couple of other times I was going to help and I should have just stayed back. It is what it is. We took a tough loss."
- More Leonard on the defensive problems posed by Houston: "When James Harden is coming off of ball screens, it's difficult to read what he's going to do. He's got the step back, he's got the Eurosteps and he can pass the ball as well. I think first game jitters are gone now, hopefully next game I maybe get some minutes and try to do my best."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Press Conference
Houston is a talented team. Give them credit for the way they played. Harden made tough shots, Howard finished around the basket, made his free throws. We could never quite get over the hump. We cut it to five in the fourth. I thought we had a chance but we couldn't quite get over the hump.
Dwight Howard's defense
He has an impact on the game. If you drive into the lane, he has an impact that -- he's the Defensive Player of the Year three times, there's a reason. He protects the rim, gives their perimeter guys a lot of reason to be aggressive. He's a deterrent in the paint.
Start of third quarter
We didn't score the first three and a half minutes. I don't remember specifically, we didn't quite have the rhythm. I thought we missed a couple of shots. I don't think it was anything specific, after three minutes they had scored five points and we didn't score any. It wasn't like it was a big blowout. We didn't quite have the rhythm. At one point, I don't know if it was then, we started turning down shots. We want to be aggressive, draw and kick and be aggressive off the dribble, but it just seemed like we were a little reluctant to shoot it at certain times.
It started off 5-0 and then they made the run. They're the type of team that can put runs on you. They put points up quickly. I thought we did a decent job of staying within striking distance. We cut it to five at the end of the third quarter, we had a steal and a breakaway that had a chance of breaking momentum. On a night that we didn't necessarily shoot the ball well, it was difficult to catch them.
54 points in the paint
they're very specific in what they do. They shoot threes and they get to the paint. Guys like Harden gets to the rim, gets to the paint, Lin gets to the rim, gets to the paint. Obviously Howard is 10-for-13, I don't think he took anything outside the paint if I'm correct. That's their style of play. You throw in transition, which is usually paint points, that's part of what they do. That being said, we need to do a better job of defending the paint. We're one of the bottom teams right now. We defend the three well, we've been defending the three well, we've got to do a better job of protecting the rim and the paint.
Robin Lopez foul trouble
You want him out there. He has an impact on the game defensively. We ended up going small and trying to score some points, him getting in foul trouble, having to have L.A. guard Dwight. That's part of the game, those things happen.
I thought it was relatively effective. I thought we got some shots, I thought we had some shots we could have made. We got L.A. on the roll to the basket. From an offensive standpoint it kickstarted us. I don't know what we got down but we went small and made our run by going small, or with more shooters. It served its purpose.
Meyers, for not having played, basically first game, I thought he played hard. He had a tough assignment with Dwight. I thought he competed.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter