Playoff atmosphere was the theme at the Moda Center Thursday, as the Houston Rockets came back from 21 points down to upset the Portland Trail Blazers in a collapse which brings back fretful memories from earlier in the season and stands as the largest blown lead of the season.
Portland stood to win a potentially position-deciding tiebreaker against the Rockets and extend its rise up the Western Conference standings with a win, but instead will split the season series and perhaps give new life to Houston.
The Blazers were led by Damian Lillard (23 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds), CJ McCollum (20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) and Al-Farouq Aminu (13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists).
The Rockets were led by James Harden's dominating performance (44 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) and Dwight Howard (19 points, 13 rebounds).
Houston's focus on this game was obvious from the start, tweaking their defensive assignments to switch the rangy Trevor Ariza onto Lillard and the ever-annoying Patrick Beverly onto McCollum. The shift was effective early, as Portland struggled to score for the first couple minutes of the first quarter before Lillard drilled a straightaway three-pointer to give the Blazers their first lead.
Howard was a bull in a China shop, pounding the ball inside, sometimes against two or three Blazer defenders but managed to be held to just four points in the period, which Portland would readily take. Harden bombed away to eight points in a relatively passive role.
Lillard chipped in eight points and five assists as he quietly dissected the Rockets' defense - a nifty layup finish following a Tony Parker-eque spin move late in the period brought the Moda Center crowd to its feet and gave the Blazers a 29-26 lead. Maurice Harkless would then check-in and double it, nailing a 35-foot prayer at the buzzer.
End of First: Portland 34, Houston 28
Houston's intensity failed to move over into the second quarter, as the Portland opened up its lead and never looked back. McCollum and and Gerald Henderson were hot early, knocking down back-to-back threes to extend the lead to nine early in the period.
Meanwhile, the Rockets looked completely disjointed, showing signs of the chemistry issues which have plagued national headlines as of late. The Blazers managed to capitalize on some careless passes and generally disrupted Houston's offensive flow. At one point Harden was merely walking up the court and firing away contested threes as Portland pulled away with a 21-6 run.
Lillard checked back in and continued to run the show - drawing a key charging call against Harden late in the half and coolly hitting two pairs of free throws in the final minutes to keep the Blazers firmly in charge heading into the locker room.
Halftime: Portland 64, Houston 49
Threes from McCollum and Aminu pushed Portland's lead as far as 21 at 72-51, but the Blazers would start to lose some steam during the third. The Rockets came out with renewed intensity an inspired defensive effort which gave Portland fits.
Harden began to find ways to slither himself into the paint, and Jason Terry connected on back-to-back jumpers to pull Houston within 10 at 85-75. Minutes later, Harden's step-back from the left elbow closed the gap to single-digits, and followed it up with two back-breaking threes to claw within just five. In all, Harden had 15 points in the quarter and single-handedly kept the Rockets in the game.
A running jumper from Henderson in the closing seconds restored a bit of order, but it was clear Houston wouldn't go down without a fight.
End of Third: Portland 93, Houston 86
If things were trending downward towards the end of the third, they just about bottomed-out during the final frame, when the Blazers went ice-cold as Harden continued his personal dismantling of the Portland defense. There was nothing Portland could do to slow him down, as he slashed, posted-up and faded to give the Rockets their first lead since the first quarter at 97-95 with 7:15 remaining.
The Blazers were lucky if they even mustered a shot attempt, as stingy pressure from Houston's defenders and sloppy passes gave way to a cascade of turnovers. A Corey Brewer three extended the defecit to five, and following split free throws from Plumlee, Aminu had his pass stolen by Brewer who was fouled on his layup attempt at the other end. The Rockets were thoroughly in control on both ends of the floor.
Absent any semblance of offensive rhythm, Portland could only stand by as Houston continued to flip the Blazers' gaffs in their own faces and run into the sunset. As the Rockets clung to an eight point lead with three minutes remaining, Portland was 1-8 with six turnovers in the fourth quarter; that's just not going to get it done.
The Blazers get one day of rest before departing on a grueling six-game road trip which will play a large part in determining the squad's postseason fate. The stretch will begin with a matchup against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls Saturday at 5 pm. Stay tuned to Blazer's Edge tonight, for extended analysis of this game from Dave Deckard.
-- Ryan Rosback | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
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