The Portland Trail Blazers have faced and beaten a bevy of challengers in their 2013-14 NBA campaign, their 31 wins placing them firmly among the NBA elite. For all that, they've still never come up against one of the league's most dangerous opponents: themselves. They came close to realizing that impossibility tonight, though, as the Houston Rockets employed dizzying three-point shooting, impressive rebounding, and a "hit 'em where they ain't" style of offense to send the Blazers to a thudding 126-113 defeat.
The opening possessions of this game played out about as expected. The Rockets scored their first 6 points within 4 feet of the bucket, preying on Portland's interior defense. But then all heck broke loose as Houston unveiled the most devastating weapon of the evening: their brand-new, laser-guided, shark-infested, robotic super-powered zombie-fueled three point shooting. Not since Crocodile Dundee uttered the words, "You call that a knife? THIS is a knife." have we seen an opponent's weapon turned against them with such disparity. The Rockets had Portland's defense on a yo-yo string all night.
"Yo. We just got a layup." So Portland sags in.
"Yo. We just hit a three." So Portland chases.
"Yo. We just reversed the ball and got a three on the other side." So the Blazers throw up their hands in frustration.
"Yo, yo. We just scored 126 on you."
It was literally that bad, especially in the first half. Houston put the ball in the hands of whomever Portland's point guards guarded, sometimes Patrick Beverley or Jeremy Lin, other times forwards on a switch. Failing that, they went with James Harden against Wesley Matthews. The dribbler in question would penetrate. Portland's defense would require help. When that help came they'd loft the ball to Dwight Howard for an alley-oop or find a three-point shooter in the corner. When the Blazers tried to stop the leak by stacking Nicolas Batum against penetration the Rockets simply found small forward Chandler Parsons for an open jumper. The Rockets feasted on layups and triples throughout the first two quarters. The only consistent offense the Blazers found came from offensive rebounds, the single category in which they held serve. LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews struggled with their shots. The whole team slipped on defense. Houston scored 71 in the first half and led by 15 at intermission.
The Blazers did make a third-quarter rally behind Aldridge and their guards. But they never could sustain the defensive pressure and barely crawled below double-digits. Houston's passing and shooting were too much. As the half unwound the Blazers began adopting some of Houston's mannerisms with Damian Lillard playing the part of James Harden, scoring repeatedly when his team needed help. But the heroic effort wasn't enough to close the gap. Meanwhile the Rockets took over even more of Portland's territory, grabbing offensive rebounds and shutting off Portland's flow of same. At that point it was all over. The Blazers had no more cards to play. Houston tallied 106 points by the end of the third and cruised home for the 126-113 win.
Portland's defense was an obvious issue, particularly at the guard positions. Portland allowed 126 points, 52% shooting, 48.5% shooting from distance, 17 offensive rebounds, and 27 assists. Houston made 16 triples to only 8 for the Blazers.
Also of note: the Rockets were short-handed tonight, missing several frontcourt players. They relied on Dwight Howard even more than usual and had no orthodox back-ups for him. But even when Howard sat, Portland's bench wasn't strong enough to make up any ground.
The Blazers grabbed 14 offensive rebounds of their own, forced 18 turnovers, and scored 64 points in the paint. Coupled with the Dallas performance, perhaps this signals a new commitment to diversifying the offense. On the other hand maybe winning the paint by 10 while losing the three-point battle, assist margin, free throw margin, and offensive rebound margin just signified Portland's commitment to trade places with the Rockets completely tonight.
It should have been obvious, but in case we needed empirical testing I guess we just found out. When Portland-like offense meets Portland-like defense, the offense wins.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a rough first half and a sub-par offensive game overall, shooting just 11-26 for 27 points. Howard defended Aldridge and bothered him. But LaMarcus never seemed that confident with his shot. His makes didn't have the usual devastation factor. Aldridge redeemed himself by rebounding like the love child of Godzilla and Thor. He was amazing on the boards, ripping down contested rebounds and contesting ones that looked all but un-contestable. He finished the night with 20, 8 offensive. I could have used one of those keychain phrase buttons that just said the word, "Wow." It would have saved my vocal cords while watching LMA on the glass tonight.
In the second half Damian Lillard treated us to the Montana offense. He drove and drove and drove. He may not have gotten anywhere in the end but we sure saw some pretty things along the way. He fired 7-17 but drew 8 foul shots, connecting on 7. 24 points and 5 assists make for a nice-looking evening but his point-guardishness came into question again with 4 turnovers and a general lack of offensive continuity. Patrick Beverley is a pretty good defender. Unfortunately Lillard is not, as the Rockets went after him repeatedly on that end.
Wesley Matthews' three-point shot slipped from automatic into park tonight. He had decent looks early but missed them, then never quite got on track. He shot 2-9 from distance, 8-17 overall for 18 points. I'm not sure what to say about Matthews' defense this year. At times he looks good; other times he just doesn't.
Nicolas Batum was busy all night defending and didn't have a huge impact on offense. He shot 2-6 for 6 points, managed 7 assists plus 2 steals and 3 rebounds. At times it seemed like Batum and Robin Lopez were the only Blazers on the defensive side of the ball.
Speaking of Robin Lopez, it's sad that the blowout will make this game forgettable from Portland's point of view because Lopez had one of THE games of the season tonight and probably his most impressive game offensively. He's scored more than the 13 points on 5-8 shooting he put up tonight, but those buckets came mostly in the post off an array of solid back-to-the-basket moves. Granted the Rockets were defending him with smaller guys, but Lopez killed it out there in the halfcourt offense. He also boxed out Howard and made some impressive defensive stands. He managed only 3 rebounds but he should get an assist on several of Aldridge's 20. Lopez was the only Blazers to triple-E it tonight: effectiveness, efficiency, energy.
Mo Williams tried the usual "fire his team to victory" offense tonight but he wasn't going to close the gap by himself, he shot only 4-10 for 9 points with 3 assists, and he didn't help any of the things that were ailing the Blazers. Mo will be Mo. The Blazers have to create a certain environment around him to make his contributions tell. They couldn't do that tonight so he looked more like a ripped sail flapping in the wind than a momentum-builder.
C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson both did the usual tonight, McCollum scoring and Robinson dashing everywhere for better or worse. C.J. seems to be developing a knack for finding space. That's encouraging.
If this game were Dwight Howard's birthday party Joel Freeland would have been the pinata. Howard just kept beating on him and taking candy. Freeland earned 3 personal fouls in 4 minutes and that was the end of the story.
After Freeland's retreat the Blazers ran Meyers Leonard for a couple of minutes, down to their third-string center. It was the first non-fourth-quarter time he's seen in a while and was largely unremarkable.
A few of the deeper reserves got some "Game Over" minutes in the fourth. Nothing much to see, except Earl Watson kept them in line.
The Blazers conclude their road trip against Kevin Durant and the Thunder tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Timmay's Instant Recap and GameDay Thread Review That GDT is now the third Google result when you search the word, "ARRRGGGH!"
The Dream Shake doesn't want to wake up from this one.