Portland Trail Blazers fans want to smash the broken record titled “2016-17 Regular Season” by now, but here we go again: The Blazers, showing no ability or effort whatsoever on the defense end, ceded 130 in a 16-point loss to the Houston Rockets tonight at the Moda Center.
James Harden propelled the Rockets with 38 points and 10 assists. Eric Gordon came off the bench to add 26, while Clint Capela had 21 points on nine field goals - all in the paint.
CJ McCollum played brilliantly (on offense), scoring 28 points while dishing out 7 assists to pace the Blazers. Damian Lillard finished with 27, but shot only 35 percent from the field on 20 shots.
Both teams came out scoring from all angles, and defending from no angles, to open the game. Lillard took a facilitating role as the Blazers ran the flow offense to get baskets for McCollum, while Harden sliced and diced into the lane for lay-ups and dished to teammates for weakside scores. Terry Stotts tried to slow the game down, calling a timeout with six minutes left in the quarter after Ryan Anderson hit a three-pointer to bring the Rockets within a point, 19-18.
At that point, Gordon subbed in for the Rockets and immediately began doing his own James Harden impersonation, easily springing off screens for open jump shots or driving down the lane for uncontested lay-ups. Fortunately, for the Blazers, Evan Turner was similarly effective for Portland’s bench, attacking and scoring down low in early offense, and hitting an open three-pointer. The starters subbed back in for both teams mid-way through the quarter with the scored tied at 50. The teams would trade baskets for the rest of the period and the Rockets would enter halftime with a 65-62 advantage.
The second half was made up of runs as Harden continued to shred the Blazers defense for easy baskets at the rim, or easy lob passes to Capela in the lane. On several occasions the Rockets pushed the lead to 8 or 9 points, but the Blazers offense responded with timely baskets from McCollum and Lillard, or open looks for Moe Harkless from all over the court.
Gordon, however, continued his offensive explosion and sparked the decisive run for Houston to open the fourth quarter. With the Rockets ahead 96-95 at the start of the period, Gordon quickly found Nene for a lay-up and drilled back-to-back threes after that, while Allen Crabbe and Turner combined for missed field goals and turnovers for the Blazers.
Gordon’s mini-outburst put the Rockets ahead 104-95 with 10:11 to go. Harden entered the game 83 seconds later, and the teams essentially traded baskets the rest of the way, giving the Rockets a 130-114 victory.
James Harden is fourth in the NBA in points per game and leads in assists per game. Given the Blazers’ current personnel, it’s almost inevitable that he will terrorize Portland every time the teams meet. To counteract Harden’s prolific offense, the Blazers must limit his teammates, and handily outscore the Rockets while Harden rests.
Portland did the opposite tonight.
In addition to Harden’s 38 points, Ryan Anderson, Capela, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Gordon all scored more than their season averages. To make matters worse, the Blazers did not make any of Houston’s players work to score those points - the Portland defense was surrendering exactly the looks each player thrives on.
For example, Turner got caught going under screens on multiple occasions leaving Gordon open to pop uncontested three-pointers. Ariza hit four wide-open corner threes. Capela repeatedly caught alley-oop passes as Harden or Gordon waltzed into the lane and forced poor rotations or the Blazers got caught ball watching; all nine of Capela’s field goals came in the paint.
As bad as that sounds, things get even worse for the Blazers defense: Harden had the lowest plus/minus of any Rockets starter at +8. In other words, Houston did as much damage with Harden out of the game as they did with him in the game. That’s a death knell for Portland given their inability to contain Harden’s scoring.
In the bigger picture, all of the Blazers’ bad habits on defense were on display tonight. The weakside defenders zoned out on several plays, creating opportunities for backdoor cuts. Players failed to man-up in early offense opportunities, giving Harden and Gordon unmolested drives to the basket. Secondary rotations were completely botched, which meant open jumpers for secondary players like Ariza and Anderson.
The Blazers also opted to continue switching on nearly all perimeter screens, which led to several instances of Mason Plumlee or Ed Davis picking up Harden around the three-point line. In theory, the “switch-everything” approach has advantages (e.g. helps hide Lillard and McCollum’s weaknesses, takes advantage of length and versatility of Harkless/Turner/Aminu), and the Blazers have benefited when the defense is clicking.
But smart coaches like Mike D’Antoni will use double screens to force a center out onto a guard and the Blazers don’t have the skill at enough positions right now to help out when Davis, Leonard or another center ends up isolated against faster opponents. As TV Analyst Lamar Hurd pointed out, those extreme mismatches create even more trouble for the Blazers - the resulting quick, uncontested drives to the basket leave the other defenders unprepared to rotate which creates even more scoring options. Going forward, Stotts may need to consider altering his schemes or rotations so the Portland centers aren’t left holding the bag as guards blow by for easy lay-ups.
As for the Portland offense ...it was fine. But it’s going to have to be a combination of the 2016 Warriors, 1988 Lakers, and 2005 Suns to win games on nights like this one.
CJ McCollum looked like Damian Lillard in the first half. He scored 20 points on a variety of drives and spot-ups. He had a particularly nice floater over Capela in the lane in the third quarter that sparked images of backyard “shoot over the broomstick” drills.
Damian Lillard tried to take over in the fourth quarter but it was not his night. He finished only 2-8 from three, but did have 5 assists and 5 rebounds and drew 13 foul shots.
Evan Turner continues his solid play on offense, finishing with 15 points and 6 rebounds. Turner seems most effective when he attacks into the lane in delayed transition/early offense and can attempt a move or two before making a decision to shoot or pass back out to reset the play.
Moe Harkless had 18 points, but he did fall asleep off the ball defensively on several plays. He’s still the best Portland defender, at the moment, but needs to raise his focus a notch to be completely reliable.
Allen Crabbe has 12 points in the last three games. The Blazers have 358. That won’t get the job done.
Mason Plumlee continues to crash the boards and act effectively as a relief valve when Lillard or McCollum are doubled coming off screens. He finished with 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists. Plumlee does have enough ability to jump out on the perimeter and temporarily cover guards, but he was out of his element being put on an island against Harden.
Meyers Leonard looked okay in 10 minutes. His defensive strength of banging down low with other physical centers did not translate well to tonight’s action.
Ed Davis continued his tepid play with 7 points and 3 rebounds. At this point it feels like he’s starting only because Leonard matches up poorly against many teams and Noah Vonleh has failed to show significant improvement.
I can think of places I’d rather hang out than The Dream Shake tonight.
Timmay!’s video recap.
Cover up Houston’s half of the box score and this one doesn’t look half bad.
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com
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