Remember when the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets seemed like budding rivals, two young-but-maturing teams destined to face off in epic Western Conference battles for years?
Yeah, not so much anymore.
Since the teams met in the first round of the playoffs two years ago the Blazers have retooled, becoming even younger and more speculative. Meanwhile Houston's star-studded banana has gone black and moldy, maybe even past the acceptable banana bread stage. As the 116-103 dousing the Blazers put on the Rockets tonight showed, one of these teams is going to have to go somewhere and learn how to play basketball again before this can be considered a fair fight, let alone a rivalry.
The Rockets created serious problems for the Blazers in the first half of this game by getting Dwight Howard the ball in the post. Howard went straight-up old school 2000's on Mason Plumlee, then Meyers Leonard. Superman Reborn scored 11 in the first period, 18 in the half, missing nothing but a couple of free throws. James Harden added 15 but his points came at a cost: 5 turnovers and increasingly sloppy play as the half wore on. The Blazers capitalized on Houston's TO's by running the ball for quick offense. The plodding Rockets had no chance of catching up.
When things were going well for Houston in the first quarter they scored 29 points but they allowed Portland 29 as well. When things went sour for the Rockets in the second period they scored only 17 but Portland still scored 28. Guess we know what the constant is in Houston's play. Portland led 57-46 at the half.
The second half was pretty much a continuation of the second quarter. The Blazers drown the opponent under a deluge of offensive rebounds, forced turnovers, three-pointers, and dunks. Portland pushed the lead to 21 before the Rockets made a semi-serious run straddling the third and fourth periods, courtesy of uncalled-for foolishness from Portland's bench. But Damian Lillard checked in at the 9:33 mark of the fourth, putting an end to all of that. Harden's watch must have broken during one of those foul-drawing drives because it was stuck on Lillard Time for the rest of the game. Damian scored 14 points down the stretch to salt the game away, allowing his team to saunter into the All-Star break with a shiny, and somewhat unexpected, 27-27 record.
If Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez had a love child who was bitten by a mosquito carrying prehistoric Kiki Vandeweghe DNA, that kid would still not defend as poorly as the Rockets did tonight. They're ridiculous.
James Harden and Dwight Howard play on the same court, but not together. For a while there it looked like somebody tapped the aquarium in Houston. They did anything they wanted as long as they entered the ball to Howard first. If the Blazers single-covered Dwight he'd score easily. If Portland sent help the Rockets had open threes aplenty. But that wasn't good enough. A game isn't a game without Harden committing 5 turnovers in a half while attempting 92 free throw attempts. While Harden waxed, Howard waned (as did the Rockets). But to be fair we've seen the same in reverse before. During Harden's amazing games Howard can often be seen with his hands down, trotting around aimlessly. As the game wound down one of our staff members called the Rockets a hot mess, but even that's too kind. They're some kind of lukewarm goo leaking out of the corners of a broken dishwasher.
Trail Blazers fans dreading trades as the deadline nears will point to the Rockets as a cautionary example. Talent wins but fit matters too. Portland's chemistry pretty much dissolved whatever the Rockets brought to the arena tonight. In the boxscore that looked like 15 offensive rebounds, 20 turnovers forced, 19 fast break points, 31 points after turnovers, and a 48-46 edge in points in the paint on a night when Howard scored 28. Forget the numbers. The Blazers played more cohesively, making the right play 85% of the time. The Rockets shot well and got fantastic production from their two stars but they made the right play maybe 40% of the time...and that's being charitable. When they did get it right, Houston looked unstoppable. That they lost by 13, allowing the opponent a whopping 116 points, shows you how long that lasted.
Damian Lillard was brilliant down the stretch. He finished with 31 points on 9-22 shooting, 4-11 from distance, with 9 assists and 3 steals. Houston had as little answer for him as the Blazers had for Howard and Harden, except Lillard didn't kill his team while getting his stats. (Or at least his teammates rallied around him better.)
Outside of a couple drives, CJ McCollum had a quiet night. He scored 14 on 6-16 shooting. Houston isn't a great matchup for him.
The Rockets are an even worse matchup for Mason Plumlee. He collected 4 personal fouls in 16 minutes of getting brutalized by Howard.
Al-Farouq Aminu picked up 4 fouls in 25 minutes (hello, helping out on Harden) but he had more fun than Plumlee did. Aminu's shot looked good and he actually got attempts from various spots on the floor, not just the corner. 4-9 shooting for 11 points and 5 assists.
NOBODY had more fun than Moe Harkless tonight though. He retook the starting forward position and played with abandon, shooting 8-11 while slicing, dicing, and ripping the guts out of the Rockets. ESPN analyst Doug Collins was practically beside himself watching Harkless play. And no wonder...19 points, 13 rebounds (5 offensive), and 2 steals in 28 minutes. That's, like, 4 Noah Vonleh games stuffed into one.
Meyers Leonard led the bench with 14 points on 6-9 shooting, most of his shots good before they ever left his hand. This being Meyers, he mixed in some buffoonery, including contributing to Houston's second-half run. But 14 and 8 in 23 minutes makes miscues easier to deal with.
Gerald Henderson shot only 3-10 but still scored 13 because he followed the lead of Harkless, ripping off drives all over the place against a Rockets' coat-check defense. "Excuse me, sir, there's a dress code in the lane. Please do not dunk again or we'll be forced to remind you again that there's a dress code in the lane. Also may we press your warm-up suit whilst you score on us?" 7-10 free throw shooting buoyed Henderson to his total.
Ed Davis collected 5 fouls in 21 minutes (hello, guarding Dwight Howard) but his 13 rebounds more than made up for it. Burning fouls against Dwight is a smart way to go anyway.
Allen Crabbe had a quiet night on offense, shooting 2-6 for 5 points, but he added 3 assists and 2 steals and was probably the most capable (or at least confident) shooting guard defender the Blazers fielded.
Links and Such
The Dream Shake will be a nightmare after this.
The Blazers have a long break before their next outing against Golden State but in the meantime CJ McCollum will win the All-Star Weekend skills competition. (At 5-1 odds in Vegas, just sayin'.) And if you put $20 on CJ to win, (which you should) then have $100 to help us out with...
Blazer's Edge Night
We've already donated over 1400 tickets so underprivileged children and youth can see the Portland Trail Blazers face the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. We're trying to get that number to 2000. We give them directly to schools, coaches, counselors, and others who work with kids in need. It makes a huge difference! Can you help out with a ticket or two?
Donating is easy. Just click here and use the promo code:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
Also...with 2000 tickets on the horizon we will probably have room to say "yes" to a few more people. We've had requests for entire grade levels at some schools and request from grandmothers who have one grandchild they'd really like to take. We honor those and everything in between. If you work with underprivileged youth or children and would like to request tickets, my e-mail is right below.
With the Blazers at .500 at the break, you HAVE to be happy! Share the love!