One of the questions surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers' heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night was whether they'd learn from it. Early in the year the Blazers escaped with wins despite dismal quarters and fuzzy focus. The Mavericks showed them that the pattern wouldn't continue against better-quality opponents. Portland could do nothing except eat the loss and vow to do better next time.
As it turned out, "next time" came exactly one night later against the Houston Rockets. Once again the Blazers built a solid lead only to give it back entirely. As déjà vu reared its ugly head, Portland said, "Forget that noise." They put together a fantastic fourth period, dumping the Rockets on their collective teakettles and emerging with a 109-98 victory.
Scouting and preparing for opponents has been a strong suit for the Blazers under Terry Stotts. It proved so again tonight. Understanding the Rockets' interior defense was vulnerable with Dwight Howard in street clothes, Portland began the game attacking the paint. The Blazers attempted only 3 field goals in the first period between 7 feet and the three-point arc. Every other shot was a triple or in the lane. The result was a tidy 26-point quarter, marred only by a few too many threes missed. A couple of better bounces and Portland's total would have been 30+.
The Blazers had trouble keeping their hands off of James Harden on the other end, though. The Rockets would attempt 34 foul shots in this game, 23 of those credited to The Beard. While many of the late-game calls tended towards theatrical, the first quarter infractions were more legit. The Blazers weren't moving quite fast enough in their halfcourt or transition defense. As a result the Rockets scored 27 and led by a point after the first despite Portland's committed and smart offensive attack.
The second period proved to be one of Portland's better showings all season. CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard, and Chris Kaman started off the festivities by scoring like they were auditioning for All-Star spots. 18 of the first 23 points the Blazers tallied in the quarter came from bench players. The second unit shared the ball, attacked, and kept the Rockets on their heels. Throughout the frame Portland's rebounding and guard defense were masterful. When the Rockets weren't turning over the ball, they found themselves shooting long and missing. Midway through the period Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez picked up the scoring where the bench left off, sending Portland to a 35-point performance against only 21 for Houston. The Blazers led 61-48 at the half and everything looked hunky-dory.
In the third period, though, hunky got flabby and dory sailed out to sea. Harden got busy for the Rockets, drawing fouls and converting shots. When the Rockets missed, they corralled offensive rebounds and tried again until they made it. Meanwhile Portland's offense gummed up in isolation sets, resulting in the same contested jumpers that they had forced on the Rockets in the second quarter. Portland's attack was no more successful than the Rockets' had been. The Blazers scored 20 in the third, Houston 32. The large halftime lead evaporated into a single point as Portland clung to an 81-80 edge heading into the fourth. Ghosts of doubt danced through the minds of the Blazers faithful. This couldn't happen in two straight games, could it?
The worry was for naught. There would be no repeat of the Dallas Disaster tonight. Leonard made sure of that, scoring 9 points in the first 5 minutes of the fourth. After coughing up 6 turnovers in that span the night before, the Blazers committed only 1 against the Rockets. Portland re-tightened their belts on defense, allowing only 7 made field goals in the quarter. As their shots sprayed in every direction, Houston's offense got desperate, drifting farther to the perimeter in hopes of finding better looks. The Blazers said, "Nay." Despite their offensive woes Houston stayed within 4 points as late as the 1:46 mark before a timely Nicolas Batum three-pointer put them away for good. The Rockets needed to make their own shots and stop Portland's. They managed some of each but never both at the same time. The 109-98 final score rewarded Portland's diligence...plus an exhaling of held breath in the Pacific Northwest that could be heard even in the southern reaches of Texas.
Despite allowing only 38% shooting from the field, the Blazers didn't exactly stop the Rockets tonight. Harden scored 45. Houston attempted 35 three-pointers and their 37% clip from that distance was respectable. Rather the Blazers absorbed a few stiff punches, then defended hard when it counted most. Every time Houston got loose the Blazers reeled them back in and shut them in the pen. This wasn't Portland's best defensive game of the year but it was effective and, in the end, a good one.
The Rockets had no such luck. The only thing missing in Portland's offense tonight was the three-pointer. The Blazers connected on only 31% of their attempts, a 9-29 rate. But that was less due to Houston's defense than Lillard, Batum, and Aldridge missing bucketfuls (2-12 combined). The Blazers still managed 53% from the field, 46 paint points, and scored 109 while netting an obnoxiously-low 4 offensive rebounds. Without Howard the Rockets didn't have the defensive chops to keep Portland contained for long.
It was good to see the Blazers respond with confidence and good execution when threatened. They may still be a young team chronologically but they don't let setbacks faze them, often playing with wisdom and confidence beyond their years. We saw that confidence broken in Dallas but it sprang right back into place tonight.
Last year we were questioning how the team would respond to ups and downs, the unknowns of an NBA season and a playoff run. This year we know more. The Blazers may get knocked down but they're not going to give up. It's a mark of their growth, also an assurance that they have a fighting chance whatever may come. Losing this game wouldn't have been a disaster but winning it was much nicer.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a tough night in isolation sets once again. The Rockets zeroed in on him when he caught with his back to the basket and he had trouble responding. Aldridge shot 8-17 but still scored 24 courtesy of 8 free throw makes in 8 attempts. 4 turnovers marred the night, but 2 steals and 2 blocks made up for them.
Damian Lillard finally gave up the incessant jump shooting (somewhat) and took defenders to the rim upon occasion. The refs rewarded him with 11 foul shots, of which he made 10. He ended up scoring 23 on a half-dozen made field goals. His 6-10 night from the field looked great, his 1-5 clip from beyond the arc, not as much. Most of those attempts were forced and deep. 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals accompanied the scoring.
Wesley Matthews shot 2-9, 2-6 from distance and scored 6 with 2 steals. He made sure he had no part in early-shot clock attempts in the final minutes of the game with the Blazers ahead.
Robin Lopez turned into an offensive machine tonight, scoring 14 on 6-7 shooting, mostly on opportunity looks. He had trouble on the glass as Houston routinely sent 2-3 men after rebounds. But it was a good night for Robin considering he didn't have a paint-bound opposing big to guard.
(sigh) Nicolas Batum. (sigh) Watching him miss shots through most of the game was nearly as painful as watching him pass up shots he should have taken. He earned some forgiveness for the big triple to put the game away. That shot looked good all the way, mostly because he didn't appear to think about it. He escape-dribbled and fired in one smooth move. If he could shut his mind off during all his shooting attempts, he'd probably find more success. 2-6 shooting, 5 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 turnovers.
CJ McCollum played superhero once again in the first half, scoring 12 points in 16 minutes on 5-7 shooting including a couple of threes. The Houston broadcast crew was all, "Hey! This guy can play!" Uh, yeah.
Meyers Leonard pretty much made Portland's bench a League of Superfriends with his fourth-quarter performance. Of all the guys to stand in the breach during a shaky situation, Meyers' name isn't the first you'd think of. Yet there he was, scoring and grabbing rebounds and even playing a little defense (or at least fouling hard). 12 points, 6 rebounds, 5-9 shooting in 15 minutes.
Steve Blake had one of those "Instant Pancake Mix" outings, providing a little bit of everything: 7 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists in 21 minutes plus some pretty good defense when he wasn't mismatched. You don't need no eggs, oil, or milk...Blake will do it all for you. If it's not exactly the best breakfast you've ever eaten, chill. It's pancakes, man! Nobody doesn't like pancakes.
Chris Kaman hit both of his shots in 14 minutes but continues to look awkward. The early-season Kaman is a memory at this point. You can chicken-and-egg it by saying the Blazers aren't feeding him as much but the Blazers aren't feeding him as much because every time he catches (if he catches) the ball stops and the turnover becomes a distinct possibility.
Will Barton got 8 minutes and put up 4 shots. Unfortunately he only made 1, but he gets points for trying. 2 points, to be precise.
Our Instant Recap talks more about James Harden's acting and post-game media reaction to this game.
The Dream Shake will not like Houston's defense in this one.
Portland gets a couple days off before welcoming the Lakers to the Moda Center on Wednesday night.