Plenty of chips were on the table in the Moda Center tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers faced off against their conference rivals, the Houston Rockets. The two teams were virtually tied in the standings coming into the game, neck and neck in a hotly-contested playoff seeding race. The winner would earn the series tiebreaker. The Blazers were also searching for confidence in the wake of Wesley Matthews' recent injury, hoping to put in a good showing following Saturday's debacle in Minnesota. Another poor performance would have opened the door for navel-gazing and doubt. That darkened doorway cracked open a bit in the first half but the Blazers slammed it shut with a strong defensive showing in the second, weathering a late Houston run to close out a 105-100 victory.
The game opened with both teams trying to prove a point, that their opponent couldn't stop them from scoring inside. The first period stood testimony to the fact that both teams were right. The sides would combine for 22 points scored within 4 feet of the bucket in the quarter. Depending on your view (offensive- or defensive-minded) it was a thing of beauty or a total mess. Alonzo Gee provided some solid late-quarter defensive minutes for the Blazers. Other than that, slow to rotate and slow to get back proved the norm. Had Houston's starting guards not been inept from the three-point arc (where they weren't guarded well either) the period could have been a disaster. Had the Rockets been able to sink free throws, same. As it was, Houston led 29-26 after one.
The second period wasn't much better defensively for the Blazers. The Rockets cooperated by missing a family-sized Eggo waffle box full of threes. That kept the score manageable. But the Blazers turned over the ball for run-outs, blew close-outs, bought fake-outs, and almost got knocked out from the resulting barrage of layups and close-in shots. Houston scoring 24 in the period was a dodged bullet.
When the Blazers weren't busy playing Matrix with Houston three-point attempts they actually got in some good offense of their own. Dorell Wright, Nicolas Batum, and Damian Lillard all hit threes, the latter keying a crucial mid-quarter run during which Lillard would score 8. Plus Robin Lopez excommunicated Houston center Donatus Motiejunas, declaring him anathema in the lane and feasting on offensive rebounds. When LaMarcus Aldridge rallied the troops late in the period, all was right with the world. Portland finished the half strong and carried a 54-53 lead into the locker room. Could have been better, but could have been much worse.
If the Blazers defended like backwoods southern lawyers in the first half, their second half was pure Johnnie Cochran. Success boiled down to shutting down the lane, taking away Houston's bail-out mechanism and forcing them to rely on bad outside shooting. The Rockets would convert only 3 times at the rim in the third period, a far cry from their earlier performance. 21 skimpy points was the reward.
Because nothing comes easy nowadays, the Blazers had to deal with their own bad news in the third. Aldridge got whistled for 3 fouls in the first 90 seconds of the period, forcing him to sit with 4 total. The referees called his use of the off-arm to set up post moves closely tonight. It was legit by the rulebook but you can understand why Aldridge and Portland fans were frustrated. Earlier in the year he was allowed to shove with impunity. Apparently that has come to an end.
Without Aldridge around to attempt his usual hostile takeover of the game in the third period, Portland's offense suffered. They scored only 2 points in the first 5 minutes. The Rockets seized a 63-56 lead. But Nicolas Batum splashed a three to get his team rolling. Then Aldridge's replacement, Meyers Leonard, went crazy, scoring 8 points in 3 minutes, including 2 triples. Batum hit another three, then Aldridge came back to close the quarter, scoring 4 of his own. Hoping to catch the Blazers holding only Ace high, Houston instead found themselves facing a full house. The Leonard-Batum flurries propelled Portland to an 80-74 lead heading for home. Momentum was on their side.
The story would remain the same, momentum running Portland's way, until 4:00 remained in the game. With Portland up 94-83 and cruising towards the win, the Rockets said, "We'll see your Meyers Leonard gambit and raise you a...Corey Brewer?" Yup. Corey Brewer. And as soon as Momentum saw old C.B. it was all...
17 points for #33 in red over the next 3 minutes, 38 seconds would throw this formerly-sure win into serious doubt. The last Brewer to do this well in Portland was Henry Weinhard. For a while, it looked like the Rockets would be hoisting a tankard or two in celebration.
Against Brewer's mighty onslaught the Blazers could muster only 2 buckets: one by Aldridge and the second courtesy of the otherwise-silent Arron Afflalo. Despite that, Houston's run came late enough that they were forced to gamble and foul. Afflalo and Lillard would convert 6 out of 6 free throws down the stretch to keep their team on the correct side of the scoreboard...Portland's saving grace. Nevertheless, when a missed call allowed Brewer to swipe the ball from Lillard with 16 seconds remaining and convert a dunk, the score read 101-100. Even with Afflalo making the ensuing charity tosses Houston was only down 3 with the ball and 12 seconds left. Nervous time had arrived.
As is often the case for actual brewers, the first 90% of the bottle was great for Corey and company but the last sip was bitter. Steve Blake and Nicolas Batum botched the screen coverage at the top of the arc on Houston's pivotal play, Blake getting hung up on the pick and Batum failing to switch. This left Brewer--Mr. "I Just Scored 17 Points in 3 Minutes"--wide open for the tying three-point attempt.
It fell short.
Lillard's final free throws iced the game and the Blazers walked away with an emotional and much-needed 105-100 conquest.
Aldridge led the Blazers with 26 points and 14 rebounds, but this was a night for the little guys. Leonard's triples gave his team an emotional lift. Despite some obvious mistakes, Batum's energy and productivity remained high throughout the game. Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman joined Aldridge to form a Superfriends-like offensive rebounding brigade. Houston's comeback featured plenty of nice defensive stands but thanks to Portland's centers the Rockets couldn't secure the ball cleanly afterwards and suffered for it. Those Afflalo free throws and his lone three-pointer, some well-timed CJ McCollum assists...a lot of little things added up to a big win.
The importance of the second-half defense cannot be overstated. The Rockets scored 48 points in the paint tonight, 20 off the break, 25 after turnovers. The Blazers had to make a stand somewhere and it ended up being in the halfcourt, keeping Houston to attempts they couldn't hit. It was feast or famine for the Rockets: total garbage buckets or tough shots. Had the Blazers not come out of the halftime locker room determined, the former would have outpaced the latter and the story of the game would have been different. It's been a while since we've seen a big halftime adjustment for Portland. This was reminiscent of their early-season games in that way, except the adjustment happened on the other end of the floor.
The post-Matthews shakiness that plagued the team in Minnesota was still in evidence tonight, though. 19 turnovers, 30% three-point shooting, the half of defense they didn't play, going with Blake on a huge defensive stand instead of being able to call on Wes...cylinders fired but the engine was nowhere near tuned. The things the Blazers did well--rebounding, hitting free throws, sharing the ball, staying determined no matter what the situation--ended up counting more, but it was close. Portland will hope that the ride smooths as players become more accustomed to one another. Until then, I suppose 105-100 wins are just as nice as 113-98. They certainly count just as much in the standings.
The Blazers now lead Houston by 1 game in the loss column, trailing the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2nd spot by the same margin. Their magic number to claim the Northwest Division over the Oklahoma City Thunder stands at 11. The Thunder lost to the Los Angeles Clippers tonight.
Picking up his 4th foul early in the third quarter and his 5th midway through the fourth should have left LaMarcus Aldridge's evening in doubt, especially since 3 of those fouls were unaccustomed offensive infractions. Instead Aldridge calmly did in 33 minutes what he usually does in 38. He shot 12-20, scored 26, and added 14 rebounds, 6 offensive. Restating: those offensive boards were critical to Portland's success, stopping the Rockets even when the defense couldn't. Coach Stotts also showed confidence leaving Aldridge in the game despite the foul situation. Even if he wasn't getting to throw the superstar forearm to set up his shot, Stotts must have known that DQ'ing Aldridge would take guts.
Damian Lillard got to the rim a few times....along with 8 assists the highlight of his game. Otherwise Houston did a good job harrying him, as one might expect given the history between them. But Lillard never panicked and only took a couple questionable shots on his way to a 5-16, 14-point performance. Not having to watch Patrick Beverley closely at the arc helped Lillard's defense. Bev shot 2-12, 1-8 from distance.
Nicolas Batum: 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 18 points on 7-13 shooting, a resounding 3-6 from the arc. Once again when everybody else got quiet, Batum spoke up. This was one of his best all-around games of the year.
The Rockets made hay against Robin Lopez for a quarter, using Motiejunas jumpers to draw him out of the lane. After that, Lopez and the Blazers were done with that mess. They struck back inside, where Lopez dominated at both ends. 7-10 shooting off of "Nobody's big enough to guard me" shots, 16 points, 10 rebounds, 4 offensive.
Arron Afflalo had a couple good defensive stands and did as well against James Harden as can be expected. His offense was another story. Forced shots and missed opportunities conspired to keep him all but scoreless until the last minutes of the game. A triple and some free throws halfway saved his night. He 9 off of 2-13 shooting, 1-7 from range. Stay tuned.
Meyers Leonard scored 8 points in 9 minutes off of 3-4 shooting, 2-3 on threes, plus 3 rebounds to boot. If you're going to play limited minutes, THAT'S the way you play them.
Chris Kaman had 10 rebounds in 17 minutes, 4 offensive. That was huge. Many of Portland's lane defense issues can be traced back to...well...if not him exactly, at least they're in his vicinity. Porous guards and Kaman are a bad combination.
CJ McCollum saw 8 minutes of PT and garnered 3 assists and a steal against 0 turnovers and only 1 missed shot. That's a nice way to ease back into playing.
Alonzo Gee, Steve Blake, and Dorell Wright all did OK...a little bit up and down for the latter two. Gee's defense looked good but he also committed 2 fouls in 5 minutes. You can tell that he knows how to play though. He seems like the kind of guy Coach Stotts will rely on more.
Our Instant Recap carries news from around the 'web regarding this important win.
The Dream Shake will not like this outcome one bit, though they may be a bit agog over Brewer.
Our In-Arena Report from the Moda Center is full of thunderous cheers and arena-shaking boos.
The Blazers get one more home game on Friday against Detroit before heading out East next week.