Despite the loss, there's actually a fair amount of good news for Blazers fans in the wake of this game. Just as Portland's Game 1 overtime victory wasn't definitive, this game was hardly a tour de force from the Rockets. It'll become their rallying cry heading into Sunday because they have nothing better, but if they don't clean up their acts they're not going to come back all the way in this series. The Blazers and their fans have more to mourn about this evening than to fear.
You wouldn't have guessed such from the opening minutes of this game, which featured Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley carving through Portland's defense like a Chopped chef through chickpeas. Houston's inside-outside game was on full display with three-pointers, dunks, layups, and even a couple of free throws. The Rockets built an 11-4 lead, looking pretty scary in the process. For the first time in the series (at least for any extended period) they proved willing to attack Portland's weak points on defense instead of going through their strongest offensive players no matter what. For a little while it didn't seem to matter who shot for Houston as long as they scored. While they kept it up, it worked.
The Rockets also debuted their long-awaited adjustment to defending LaMarcus Aldridge tonight...approximately 6 quarters late. They started Omer Asik on him, the same basic strategy they employed in Game 2 with more Asik and less Howard. But they finally conceded that no defender could handle Aldridge alone. They left Asik on an island as long as Aldridge was willing to shoot over the top. Omer shaded to the left on defense, forcing Aldridge to spin baseline if he wanted to dribble. As soon as that first dribble went down, the middle defender (usually Howard) came from underneath the basket down the baseline, cutting off Aldridge's penetration and the easy interior pass. This forced LaMarcus to shoot a hesitation jumper over two guys or to pass to the strong-side perimeter where Houston defenders--not involved in the doubling--still watched Portland's shooters. The Blazers would occasionally get an easy offensive rebound off an Aldridge miss in the vacated paint, but for the most part the strategy worked. The Rockets got the ball out of Aldridge's hands without exposing themselves to the triple. Aldridge's night wasn't horrible, but it wasn't a 40-point evening either. The Rockets would take a 35-24 lead out of the first period.
Terry Stotts used the second period to get Aldridge some rest. Kevin McHale chose to rest both of his stars at the same time. As a result, Houston's scoring flat-lined. A three-pointer from obscure reserve forward Troy Daniels comprised their entire total for the first 5 minutes of the period before the hastily-returned Howard hit a bunny with 6:56 remaining. During that same span Damian Lillard and Robin Lopez made hash of Houston's defense, accounting for 12 of Portland's 16 points as they surged back to take the lead, 42-38. Howard and Asik would close the period playing big inside while Lillard and a surprisingly aggressive Nicolas Batum alternated slashing for free throws and bombing three-pointers. The madcap finish left the Blazers ahead 55-54 at the half, a fine result considering the early deficit.
Aldridge and Batum would carry the Blazers through the third period, Aldridge shooting before any double could arrive and Batum playing off of him for the jumper. This period would also feature a fierce rebounding battle between Howard and Lopez, frequently, but not always, won by Houston's superstar. The Rockets ran screens to good effect, played their usual "Three or the Key" style of offense, and managed a 27-23 lead in the period, leaving them up 81-78 at the end of the third. Everybody in the building knew this one was going down to the wire.
The Rockets stretched their lead significantly in the early part of the fourth period. Learning from the second-quarter massacre, McHale kept James Harden in the game while giving Howard a rest, letting Asik play true big man for a few minutes while keeping credible perimeter threats on the floor. Another Daniels three, 5 points from Harden, and an and-one from Asik pushed Houston's lead to 90-80 with 10:17 remaining.
As the clock ticked down and the pressure increased both teams made strategic decisions which would impact the close of regulation.
Losing the battle of the boards, often ceding the paint as well, and needing pure offense, the Blazers sat Lopez and inserted Mo Williams into the fourth-quarter lineup. Williams' early shift in the game had featured his signature style of brilliance mixed with banality. His fourth-quarter performance was pure gold. He'd burn the Rockets for 9 points in less than 2 minutes, including a death-defying, crowd-resuscitating 4-point play. Portland made up for the lack of height by sending Williams to double, then foul, Howard after he returned to the game. It was Hack-a-Dwight with a twist, less to gain possession and close the lead than to disguise the small-ball lineup. Unfortunately for the Blazers, Howard would hit 4 of 6 free throws, else they might have killed two birds with one stone.
The Rockets, meanwhile, benefited and suffered in equal measure from Harden gaining a head of steam. As the quarter progressed their offense became more isolation-heavy. The excellent screens and team-ball which had foiled the Blazers earlier in the game disappeared under a flurry of Harden dribbles, broken only by somewhat weaker imitations from Jeremy Lin. Harden's presence did put pressure on the Blazers, but they handled it well. Wesley Matthews did a fantastic job staying in front of him and making life difficult. The result was slow, predictable offense capped by misses from Harden...playing right into Portland's hands. The Blazers began to edge back into the game, pecking away possession by possession. When Lillard converted an improbably-brilliant layup against Harden with 1:59 remaining the Blazers took the lead again, 107-106.
With Howard free throws and Harden bricks comprising their only offense for the past 4 minutes, the Rockets looked to be in trouble. Isolation ball had wilted their momentum. They weren't even spacing the floor for Harden anymore. Lin stood at incorrect angles, Howard kept his man too close to the lane, everybody stood watching James work for tough misses. But Matthews' aggression, so effective against Harden heretofore, turned against him in the final 2 minutes of the game. Instead of containing Harden and making him prove he could hit a shot, Matthews overplayed, getting up in Harden's grill and going for steals. His hands looked decent but that level of frenetic energy ended up drawing whistles. Harden would end up scoring on 2 straight possessions without a field goal made, giving Houston its final 4 points of regulation from the foul line and leaving them ahead 110-107 with 1:07 to go.
After Matthews missed a tying three-pointer at the other end the Rockets had the ball up 3 with 54 seconds remaining. Lin got ahead of the defense and streaked in for a layup but he missed it. Batum came to the rescue on Portland's ensuing possession, canning a triple and knotting the score at 110-all. Harden would miss Houston's final 2 attempts, failing to call a timeout after a rebound with 4 seconds remaining, forcing his team to take the ball full-court for the game's final shot. The Blazers came up empty as well. To overtime we went.
The extra period would continue most of the trends of the fourth with a few wrinkles. Houston's spacing remained atrocious, their offense isolation-bound. Harden and Lin dominated the ball, earning a pair of free throws and hitting a jumper each. Matthews committed his 6th foul, but even when Lillard replaced his watchdog duties on Harden in the iso sets, Houston still couldn't manage much more than an off-kilter jumper. The Rockets also slipped on defense, leaving Aldridge either single-covered or open for reasonable jump shots. Unfortunately LaMarcus couldn't hit any of them, managing only a pair of free throws in the extra period, totaling 2 points in the final 5:00 of regulation and 5:00 of OT combined. Lillard and Batum scored early in overtime but Damian couldn't hit shots late either. As a result the balance ended up reading 116-116 with 15 seconds remaining when the game's decisive play unveiled.
The game-winner began with Harden botching another extended dribble drive, losing the ball with help from Batum. It sprayed towards the sideline where the ever-eager Williams awaited. Harden dove after the loose ball, sliding across the floor and undercutting Williams as Mo picked it up. It's not clear how much possession Williams had, if any, as he stumbled over Harden's trip but he appeared to tip it in Portland's direction. Lin, also running to recover, gained unfettered access as he leaped over/past/through the falling Williams and corralled the rock. Meanwhile on the opposite side, neatly positioned for a three, stood our old friend Troy Daniels. You may remember him from such hits as scoring Houston's only points of the early second period on a three. Or scoring some of the few points of the early fourth on a three. Or being in the D-League just a few weeks ago. Take your pick. In any case, on this night the third time was both a charm and Daniels' crowning glory. Lin whipped him the ball, he rose, and on a team of vaunted superstars and expensive, hyped-up supporting players, Troy Daniels put down the shot down that won Game 3 and save the series for the Rockets.
With Houston up 119-116 and 11 seconds to go, Batum couldn't repeat his game-tying magic. His miss on a three led to an intentional foul on Harden, Two free throws sealed the final score at 121-116. This time the close, exciting game had gone Houston's way.
Describing the Rockets with words like, "Isolation-heavy" and "incompetent spacing" and "going away from what got them the lead" may cause you to wonder how the Blazers lost this contest. Their attack got the right result, but it was hardly a masterpiece performance for Houston. They succeeded in 3-4 key areas which ended up outweighing everything else.
Houston dominated the glass, grabbing 22 offensive rebounds to 13 for the Blazers. They shot a respectable 39% from distance, getting open off of their primary scoring threats during the early part of the game and, of course, in that final, wacky possession. They did a reasonably good job containing Aldridge early and he wasn't in rhythm later when the Blazers needed him. They also managed to correct a couple of their chronic issues, shooting 19-22 from the foul line and committing only 8 turnovers. Cumulatively it was enough to overcome their mistakes (and occasional general foolishness).
The Blazers, meanwhile, pushed the tempo successfully, scoring 23 points on the break to 8 for the Rockets. They drew and hit more free throws, shot respectably from the arc, blocked an amazing 10 shots, and shot a higher percentage from the field than Houston did. Portland's big downfall was letting the Rockets get up 105 attempts against their own 90...a direct result of the rebounding issue. Portland needed to make Houston pay for their Aldridge scheme by grabbing offensive boards and hitting plenty of threes. They did well enough in both areas, but not superbly. The Rockets actually ended up better in both departments. That hurt.
Individually you have to look at Aldridge's 8-22, 23 point effort with 10 overall rebounds (but only 1 offensive) and credit Houston for keeping him away from the bucket and shooting tough shots. You have to balance that with Lillard (9-16 for 30 points and 6 assists) and Batum (9-20, 4-9 from distance for 26 points plus 5 assists and 3 offensive rebounds) having their best games of the series. The Blazers knew Houston would come after Aldridge. They needed outlets. Batum and Lillard provided them.
Robin Lopez also 6 offensive rebounds...a huge number. Matthews, despite his defense, ended up shooting only 1-5 from distance. Williams filled in the gap with 17 points on 6-10 shooting.
Put it all together and it adds up to "almost". The Blazers almost took this game. They needed a little more poise, an Aldridge jumper or two. The Rockets built advantages but frankly they were less definitive and more easily lost than in either of their previous two defeats. What does it say about Houston that the guy with the best understanding of spacing and timing--the guy who actually looked like he knew what he was doing--was also the guy new enough to have not been subverted by their standard M.O.? Daniels' good play and justified confidence stuck out like a sore thumb amid the confusion and lack of teamwork as the game closed. Aside from him, Houston hung on by a toenail, getting a bounce or call here and there, coming out with the win.
You'll remember that we opined that Portland's Game 1 victory, though welcome, was hardly definitive. This game wasn't quite as weird overall, but it stands as the Houston analog. It was a victory. It wasn't that indicative. The Rockets will need to back it up with their equivalent of Portland's Game 2, a much more solid victory, before we can declare the course of the series changed.
The other take-away point is one I was talking about privately with some of the staff yesterday and should have made public because I'd look like a genius. This series looks to be the most homecourt-independent we've ever seen. When these teams meet the venue doesn't appear to matter. That means the Blazers can take nothing for granted on Sunday. It also means that Games 5-7 (if necessary) remain up in the air.
Every game between these two teams is a war. Every game appears to turn on 1-2 plays. Blazers fans might shudder a little tonight because their vaunted Moda Center momentum didn't hold up. They can also take hope in the Rockets demonstrating that, unless they change their mindset, those critical 1-2 plays are going to be at least a coin flip, if not in Portland's control. This game did nothing to demonstrate that the Rockets are smart, mature, or aware of their surroundings. If anything they continue to look the opposite when the game matters. They're good. They have a dominant advantage or two. But barring further evidence to the contrary, they seem intent on blundering through this series and seeing where their talent will take them instead of actually knuckling down and winning it.
Even in the face of a loss, that's good news for Portland.
Buckle up. Game 4 comes next.