Last night's recap of Game 1 between the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets didn't cover individual performances outside of the obvious. Here's some bonus coverage breaking down what went right and wrong for each participant.
Obviously we have to start with LaMarcus Aldridge's 46 points, 18 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots. Ben Golliver had a wonderful rundown of the evening and Aldridge's reaction to it here. It was, simply put, the best statistical performance from a Trail Blazer in playoff history and one of the better nights in league history. With one game Aldridge placed himself in the pantheon with Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Clyde Drexler, Brandon Roy, Terry Porter, and...well...Bonzi Wells as potent post-season performers. The game didn't have the gravity of Walton vs. Jabbar or the Blazers in the '77 Finals, but it deserves to be remembered every bit as much as Roy's huge explosion against Dallas in 2011.
Aldridge took an uncharacteristically high 31 shots in this game, adding 13 free throw attempts. He accounted for roughly 1/3 of Portland's attempts, 38% of their total production. He was THE star. His 7 offensive boards afforded him extra attempts and the Blazers extra possessions. His defense ranged from adequate to opportunistic. Despite the extra touches he committed only 3 turnovers. You could not have asked for anything more from him.
The only time Aldridge even began to suffer came in Portland's small-ball lineup when he was asked to watch Dwight Howard one-on-one. Howard took LaMarcus down low, turning his shoulder and moving Aldridge out of the way. But Aldridge returned the favor against the rest of the Rockets, stuffing his usual back-to-the-basket game into tighter quarters, scoring at the rim to free up his jumper instead of the reverse. This was one of those games when you remember that Aldridge is a true big man, not just a nouveau power forward with a perimeter game.
Following in Aldridge's wake, Damian Lillard poured in 31 points with 5 assists, only 1 turnover, and 9 big rebounds. At 9-19, 3-7 from the arc, Lillard's shooting was adequate. His big turn came at the foul line, where he hit 10 of 12 attempts including many of the points that carried Portland through the late fourth quarter and overtime. The Rockets punished the Blazers off the dribble whenever they cared to. Lillard provided Portland's answer, drawing fouls and creating more pressure at the cup. The Blazers forced the Rockets to help and rotate instead of letting them defend straight up as they'd prefer. This will remain a key to the series and Lillard will remain a key to the phenomenon.
Success was more modest for the remainder of Portland's starters. (Though to be fair, the stars set the measuring stick high.)
Nicolas Batum's defense in this game has been maligned, as has his relative lack of presence. The latter has been a year-long, career-long phenomenon. It didn't affect the game much tonight, nor was Batum's performance as poor as it appeared at first blush. Chandler Parsons did get the advantage on Nic in the first half. But Batum isn't just tasked with stopping Parsons. He's Portland's troubleshooter, the guy they call when a scorer is on fire or they need help on the trap or a switch. Batum isn't watching a single person, he's watching four at once. Parsons had a good night, but not entirely at Batum's expense. Nic's teammates take some credit as well, either because they were switched off on Parsons or because they couldn't contain on their own and needed assistance.
Batum shot well for the game, 6-10 overall and 2-4 from the arc for 14 points. His contributions weren't so much impressive as carefully-timed. He became the outlet, the guy Houston forgot who made them pay at critical moments. That role suits Batum. The caveat is, the Rockets will certainly try to bear down on Portland's stars in Game 2. That leaves Batum next in line. He'll have to provide more pressure to keep the defense honest.
Wesley Matthews shot 6-16 from the field, 1-7 from the arc, 5-6 from the foul line for 18 points. He did a credible job on James Harden when assigned to him, but Harden also made that job easier with poor decision-making. The jury's out on how long that'll continue, as Harden fared well enough in the second half, especially when driving the lane.
Matthews made Harden pay for his own defensive sins in the early possessions of the game, posting up and swinging around for the score or foul shots. The Rockets solved that fairly quickly and the practice ceased. It was a nice wrinkle but unlikely to become a dependable staple. Matthews will have a hard time making up for missing threes with any number of post-ups. But it's nice to know he has a go-to option for a possession or two.
Robin Lopez looked to be the Starter Least Likely to Succeed heading into this matchup and Game 1 more or less confirmed that. Lopez's huge asset is his attitude. He's willing to get physical, doesn't get discouraged, sells out for every play whether he gets the block or gets burned. The Blazers need that.
Lopez is also over-matched defending Dwight Howard and too slow to play against Houston's smaller lineups. He's more suited to go up against Omer Asik but the Rockets chose to play Asik only 12 minutes last night. That left Lopez in no-man's land. He grabbed 8 rebounds and committed 6 fouls in 32 minutes. His 2-7 shooting rate yielded 6 points, but the Rockets left him as the preferred bail-out option in Portland's offense and he couldn't answer. You get the feeling they'll live with as many points as he can score as long as the ball isn't in the hands of a star or three-point shooter. Lopez did manage a respectable 3 offensive rebounds.
The best performance off Portland's bench came courtesy of Joel Freeland, who in 1 minute of play, coinciding with the last minute of the game, hit a free throw after drawing the 6th foul on Howard. Even better, Freeland provided the shut-down help that stymied Harden's drive on the final play, keeping the Rockets down 2 and preserving the win for Portland. Never has so much been packed into so little time by such a relatively obscure player.
Thomas Robinson had 6 rebounds and a block in 15 minutes, plus the now-expected 3 fouls. His major contribution may have been not blowing it, giving the starters a rest and giving the Rockets a different look to defend. Half of his rebounds were offensive, a bonus for Portland. But Robinson appeared hesitant after corralling said boards, failing to power up strong or outlet crisply. He became like a hitter with good percentage but no power. But he did well enough and the Blazers certainly need the alternate look.
The Sad Trombone Award for the evening goes to Mo Williams and Dorell Wright, veterans who were supposed to help the playoff cause...the only guys off Portland's bench besides Earl Watson who carry a number greater than 0 or 1 under "years of experience". Wright flat-lined, missing 3 shots and grabbing 2 rebounds in 13 minutes of play. Williams dug himself and his team a hole, missing 5 of 6 shots, balancing 2 assists and 2 steals with 2 turnovers and 4 personal fouls, ultimately contributing only 3 points in 27 minutes. As has been the habit of late-season opponents, the Rockets went at Mo's defense. It was a sad night for him all around.
Summing up, the Blazers benefited from one transcendent performance, one star turn, a couple of average-but-flawed evenings, a couple of eggs laid, and a well-timed minute from Joel Freeland. Combined this was enough for a 2-point victory. The Blazers have room to grow but their stars also have room to descend. They need to figure a way to make the two balance out. As mentioned, the Rockets will take a personal interest in seeing Lillard and Aldridge suffer in the next outing, likely willing to let anybody else beat them. The supporting cast will be tested and needs to prove themselves worthy of the challenge.
Here's the Boxscore for your perusal.