With the Houston Rockets carrying a 4-7 record into Wednesday night's game versus the similarly-slumping Portland Trail Blazers, nobody knew what to expect. Last year's conference finalists fired coach Kevin McHale this morning. How would they play for interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff? Would they finally find their groove or would the Blazers pounce on them, taking advantage of confusion to turn their own momentum around?
Cheat Sheet: The correct answer to all of the above questions is, "No."
The Rockets did not play inspired basketball, turning in 36 minutes of horrific play followed by an extended, 17-minute James Harden bail-out tour. The Blazers did not pounce on their hapless opponents, playing well enough to build a lead but never looking comfortable doing so even though the Rockets were handing them the game on a platter with dipping sauce. Ultimately the Blazers were unable to turn-around their momentum, fumbling away a 17-point second-half advantage and bowing out quietly in overtime for a 108-103 loss...Portland's 7th straight.
Were justice served, neither team would have gotten a victory for this stinker in which 24-second clock violations seemed a blessed mercy, as they prevented us from having to watch yet another appalling shot attempt. But part of the grotesquerie was intentional. From the outset of this game, the Blazers showed commitment to upping their defense. This came with an asterisk. Portland still proved slow getting out to cover three-point shooters after the ball moved inside. But the Rockets can't hit a three-point shot to save their lives so Portland's plan proved solid. Close-outs aside, more players had hands up and feet moving than we're used to seeing. The Blazers surrounded the ball every time Houston moved inside the lane. The effort was impressive.
Because the Blazers are incapable of doing two things at once, playing more inspired defense caused Portland's offense to slip. The Blazers committed 8 turnovers in the first period, allowing Houston easy looks that excused their woeful halfcourt execution. As opening quarter came to a close Houston led 22-21.
Portland played no better than average in the second period but 5 three-point shots splashing home made up for every ill. The Blazers also pared their turnovers down to 3, taking away Houston's flow of easier points. With simple shots gone, Houston's offense stank like a rancid oyster. They barely ran sets, vomiting up shots that you'd be embarrassed to take in a game of H-O-R-S-E. The Rockets scored only 13 in the period, Portland 25. The Blazers led 46-35 at intermission.
The third period wasn't as ugly statistically as the second. The Blazers scored 30 points, Houston 26. But increased scoring was more about upping tempo than quality of play. Houston decided if they couldn't be good, they were going to be fast. They jacked up shots early and often, missing just as badly. Portland was more polished and more accustomed to the quick game, owning a speed advantage at nearly every position. As the quarter wound down and the Rockets gained no ground, they optioned into James Harden Ball, scoring from the foul line off of Harden's iso moves. It wasn't pretty but at least it was scoring. The Blazers led 76-61 after three.
But the Blazers' road to an easy victory crumbled under a landslide fourth quarter in which the Rockets scored 38 points.
Perspective: they scored 39 in the second and third periods combined.
Here are the buckets you need to remember from the fourth: At the 6:11 mark reserve center Clint Capela flipped in a layup off of a Harden assist. With 1:14 remaining in the game Dwight Howard sank a pair of free throws. Why do you need to remember those points? They were the ONLY 4 points put on the board by power forwards or centers in the period. Houston's other 34 points came from the hands of guards or small forwards.
Harden and Corey Brewer were the main offenders. Harden scored 17 in the period, Brewer 13, including the last-second miracle three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. The Blazers could not defend Harden in single coverage. He backed them down into the lane and scored right over them. But when they sent help, Houston moved the ball and (finally) hit their threes. It was as if the Rockets finally finished their cleanse-diet of suckiness and hit up the all-you-can-score buffet. Though Portland entered the fourth with a 15-point lead, regulation concluded with the teams knotted at 99 apiece.
Overtime provided the second verse, worse than the first. Harden scored all 9 of Houston's points during extended time. The Blazers responded with 3 missed layups, a couple missed mid-range shots, and a turnover with 7 seconds remaining, down only 3. The clock struck midnight and Portland's coach was a pumpkin once more. After playing three quarters of basketball so bad that half the game's viewers signed up for cornea transplants immediately following, the Rockets ended up exploiting the heck out of a single matchup to wrest away a 108-103 overtime victory.
In plane crash investigation shows they say that a single factor never results in an airline disaster. Catastrophic events are the result of multiple small mistakes snowballing into an uncontrollable outcome.
Tonight's game cannot compare to an airplane accident in gravity, but the same lesson held true.
Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard went down with a separated shoulder injury 7 days ago versus the San Antonio Spurs. Since that time, Coach Terry Stotts has been experimenting with power forwards without success. To this point, Leonard's replacements have either shown themselves foul prone (Ed Davis), not ready (Cliff Alexander), or both (Noah Vonleh). Vonleh started tonight, picking up 4 personal fouls in 13 minutes. Davis was hardly better, collecting 4 in 18 minutes.
Pre-season favorite Maurice Harkless is mired in a week-long slump wherein he produces almost nothing on the floor save occasionally-good defense. Tonight he bucked that trend with 8 big rebounds in 19 minutes but he shot only 1-4 from the field and committed 4 turnovers....hardly trustworthy material.
This combination of factors led Stotts to run with a three-guard lineup in the fourth period. The move was not necessary in absolute terms. All night long the Blazers had proven themselves quicker than Houston's plodding veterans. They shot better. They held the lead, not needing to generate instant offense to catch up. But as the game closed Stotts had no reliable options to play alongside Lillard, CJ MCollum, Mason Plumlee, and Al-Farouq Aminu. He went with the least of all evils, throwing Allen Crabbe into the mix. Crabbe's recent hot streak and 50% shooting in this game provided the best chance for the Blazers to generate enough offense to keep their lead alive.
To anyone who's watched the Blazers play this season, the problem with a three-guard lineup will be evident. Lillard and McCollum don't defend well under the best of circumstances, allowing points even with a solid frontcourt watching their backs. Crabbe is no better and may actually be worse. Houston didn't even have to pick a matchup. They would have had a harder time not scoring against that trio. Harden demolished McCollum, then ate Crabbe for lunch with extra butter. The Rockets were off to the races.
Had the Blazers been executing on the offensive end, playing a good game themselves, the scoreboard might have swung their way nevertheless. But the double-digit lead they held through most of the game masked the truth. Through the first three periods Portland averaged about 25 points per quarter...what you'd expect from a so-so team. They shot 40% from the field for the night, 30% from the arc. The Blazers weren't playing great, merely decently. The Rockets were god-awful. This made Portland's 17-point edge deceptive.
On Harden's back, Houston turned their play around. The Blazers stayed right in the middle the whole way through before falling apart in overtime. Portland didn't lose this game as much as fail to win it, unable to press their advantage. But on an average night versus an average NBA team, the Blazers would have lost in regulation, not overtime.
Hitting 24 of 29 free throws (89%) helped Portland's cause tonight. 19 turnovers didn't. Earlier in the year we claimed that opposing veterans would be able to see exactly where the young Blazers were trying to go with their too-obvious passes and drives. That happened tonight. The Blazers did force 11 steals. They held Houston to 35% shooting from the field. But the Rockets' inability to hit an open three killed them more than Portland's defense did. That changed in the fourth quarter and so went the game.
In the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast, recorded yesterday but releasing tomorrow, you're going to hear special guest Tara claim that the Rockets are playing so horribly that the Blazers should beat them. You're going to hear me counter with, "They still have James Harden, right? He's going to carve up Portland's guards."
As it turned out, we were both right. The twin horrors of Houston's lethargy and Portland's defense canceled each other out, leaving the teams in an overtime coin flip carried by Houston's superior firepower and a little last-second magic.
You know the drill with Damian Lillard by now. He scored 23 on 6-19 shooting, suffering from the three-point arc (1-6) but killing the opponent on drives (10-10 from the foul line). Lillard's 2 steals got suffocated by the weight of his 6 turnovers.
CJ McCollum scored quite nicely tonight, showing off his repertoire of dribble moves and pull-up shots. He shot 7-16 for 19 points, only 1-5 beyond the arc. McCollum played more on-ball tonight, switching up with Lillard. Damian had 3 assists, CJ 6. McCollum added 3 steals. This was one of his better outings.
Mason Plumlee had a fascinating evening. He didn't get bulled over by Dwight Howard, as Houston never went to Howard in the post. Instead Plumlee darted around like a gadfly, poking at Howard before Superman could get the ball above his head. With Houston's drives developing so slowly, Plumlee finally had time to get into position when his guards let dribblers in the lane. Not only did he bother shots, he blocked 6 of them. If every team were as lethargic as the Rockets, Plumlee could make the all-defensive team. It was nice to see what he could do if his backcourt diverted dribblers for a half-second longer than they usually manage.
Al-Farouq Aminu grabbed 15 rebounds, filling in for Plumlee on the glass as the latter was tying up Howard. Aminu struggled mightily on offense, however, hitting only 2 of 8 three-point attempts and committing 3 turnovers. Aminu's play is a microcosm of his team's. He plays well on one end of the floor each night but has trouble putting together a complete game all at once.
Noah Vonleh started and played 13 minutes, grabbing 6 rebounds. He's just not into enough plays right now though, like he's still figuring out where to be on the court. He didn't play a bad game, just not an impactful one.
Allen Crabbe continues his torrid shooting, hitting 6-12 , 3-6 from distance for 15 points in 39 minutes. He also managed 5 rebounds and 2 steals, but added 5 personal fouls. It's not his fault he can't handle Harden. Too bad the Rockets didn't discover that 2 minutes later in the game.
Gerald Henderson continues to round into shape, getting up 7 shots and hitting 3 for 9 points in 15 minutes of play. The Rockets play at the right speed for him to be effective in his recovery phase.
Ed Davis managed only 3 rebounds against 4 personal fouls in 18 minutes. He's lost right now.
Mo Harkless decorated the court with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals in 19 minutes. Those 4 turnovers tho...
Tim Frazier saw court time with 6 minutes of play featuring 3 assists and a steal.
Links and Notes
The Dream Shake will wonder if this game has the potential to turn the Rockets' season around. I don't think so.
Next Up: The Blazers play the Los Angeles Clippers at the Moda Center on Friday night at 7:00 p.m.
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