Expectations were pretty low tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers faced off against the Houston Rockets for the third time in as many weeks. Even though both teams are technically embroiled in the Western Conference playoff hunt, they couldn't have been headed in more radically different directions entering this game. The Blazers were riding high, winning 11 of their last 12 games. The Rockets were falling apart, victims of their own selfishness and failed trade deadline resolutions. With Portland having won both prior meetings and holding homecourt advantage, the air of mystery surrounding the outcome was thin, practically non-existent.
The first half played out exactly as predicted. The Rockets played defense poorly enough to embarrass your local rec league. Portland's passing made Houston look downright stupid, as if they had all but given up on the game. The Blazers scored 64 in the first half on 50% shooting. A 20-point lead was de rigueur and hitting the 130 mark didn't look at all improbable.
Then whatever plane Portland's focus and drive were riding on crashed on a deserted tropical island. This could have been a government plot involving ancients or aliens or flash-forwarding...nobody's quite sure. It just went on and on...and on...getting more confusing with each passing moment. All we know for sure is the Blazers couldn't figure it out in time to stop a 44-16 Houston run to close the game, which ended in a shocking 119-105 victory for the visitors. The team on their way to 130 ended up 25 points short of that mark while the team down by 21 won by 14. Go figure.
We pretty much just described it. The Blazers could do no wrong in the first half. They were so pristine that the sins of everyone in the arena were preemptively forgiven and their years in purgatory reduced by 92% just from watching the display. Houston defended with all the interest of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen given tickets to a screening of "Battleship". Portland's passing had the Rockets tied in knots. It's not like Houston defenders were a step late; they weren't even in the vicinity of plays. America watched not just the collapse of a team, but of a franchise era right before their eyes. This was the exclamation point to the "Houston is Done" narrative.
The only minor first-half hiccup for the Blazers came when the bench entered. Their defense wasn't as sterling as the starting unit's (a fact disguised by Houston leaving their own starters in for long stretches, making their bench points looked low compared to Portland's). But that hardly mattered. Under the circumstances a 64-49 lead at the half felt plenty comfortable, if not insurmountable.
The Blazers put the screws to the Rockets as the second half opened, scoring 8 points to Houston's 2, pushing the lead to 21, apparently on the way to making this a true rout. But then a bunch of things happened at once:
1. Damian Lillard went out...which wasn't that big of a deal on the face of it as his shift was up and he was suffering through a 6-20 shooting night anyway.
2. Houston switched bigger defenders onto Portland's guards. Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza started denying passes and pressing CJ McCollum (and eventually Lillard) far out onto the floor before plays could be initiated. This drained the clock, made passing difficult, and in the end forced the ball into the hands of players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee who just weren't capable of keeping up the scoring pace.
3. James Harden went off to the tune of 34 second-half points.
What started as some mildly-annoying badgering of McCollum turned into full-on hounding of the entire Blazers offensive machine. Portland responded to the pressure by collapsing in nearly every facet of the game. Not only did their offense devolve into futile hero-ball and turnovers, their defense melted and their rebounding stopped. It was like a shiny new Roomba 980 rolled through the Moda Center and sucked up every shred of confidence and poise the Blazers carried. Or, put more accurately, the way the Rockets played in the first half is exactly how the Blazers played in the second half. Except Harden got on a hot streak that Portland's guards never mustered, so the effects were worse.
As the second half turned into a nightmare the thoughts of Blazers fans drifted progressively southward. "Where are the standings charts?" became, "Where's the poise?" and "Where's the lead gone?", then continued through "Where's the comeback?" before finally settling on, "Where's the exit?" Exit is all the Trail Blazers and their supporters could do after ending up on the wrong end of a loss that started out in such promising fashion but ended up in the dumps.
National headlines about this game will feature James Harden's point production. That's valid. Harden scored 46, outpacing the 43 Lillard and McCollum managed combined. But Harden's scoring was understandable (predictable?) and it didn't win this game. The Blazers could have withstood the barrage, just as they have many times this season when an opponent walked out with gaudy stats and a loss.
The tidal-wave reversal came not not because Harden broke down the Blazers, but because the Blazers broke down in nearly every other aspect of the game as well. Houston got to loose balls and rebounds before Portland did...HUGE sins when you're younger, more athletic, and are playing a team as dispirited as the Rockets were in the first 27 minutes of this game. Houston's defense got so far inside Portland's head they might as well have been Chekov's Ceti Eel. As soon as passing got harder the Blazers abandoned it in favor of "one-on-many" scoring attempts. McCollum started the trend, followed by Allen Crabbe, then Lillard offered nothing better when he returned. It was like everybody thought that they, personally, would take the game back...that because every shot was easy in the first half, any shot should be easy, period. The Blazers forgot that those easy shots came not off the dribble, but through player and ball movement. The Rockets are slower laterally but they're big and they're experienced. If you go straight at them, they can defend. And they did.
When Portland's guards weren't trying to win the game solo, they weren't doing anything. With the game still in critical stages we were treated to the awful spectacle of Aminu and Plumlee playing a two-man game in the halfcourt, neither one within 12 feet of the bucket. That was but one symptom of the most massive breakdown of Portland's offensive principles we've witnessed all year.
This kind of thing is not unusual for an inexperienced team. The impressive winning jag made everybody forget that the Blazers are just that, but tonight was like a cold splash of water in the face. Young teams win when they're hungry, committed, and defying the world. They don't win when they lose focus and start cruising, forgetting how they earned their laurels. When they're on point, the Blazers can face anybody with their heads held high. As soon as they engage in bad habits, they're going to get crushed.
Portland ended up allowing the Rockets to shoot 54% from the field. The Blazers committed 21 turnovers, 14 of them coming via Houston steals. The Rockets beat the Blazers in fast break points 16-9 and demolished them in the paint 62-26. Dwight Howard accounted for only 16 of those paint points. That's not good.
The Blazers now sit in 7th place in the Western Conference playoff standings, in a deadlock with the 6th-place Dallas Mavericks and a game ahead of 8th-place Houston. They could have put a nail in the coffin of the Rockets tonight, stamping their superiority and thrusting down a potential bracket-hogging foe. Instead they did a pretty convincing job of resurrecting Houston's season by giving up the dramatic win.
It would be strange to talk about any kind of averages or totals tonight, as they're a product of two wildly different halves. Outside of Gerald Henderson, who had a steady 5-7 performance, Portland's guards were uneven throughout. Their best first-half moments came via wide-open shots and facilitating the same for teammates. They didn't have many good moments in the second half. Suffice it to say that when the Rockets took out Portland's backcourt players, they chopped the head off the chicken and the rest was just running around until the final flop.
Moe Harkless and Ed Davis had generally wonderful, energetic games. Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh struggled. Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee followed the flow of the game, looking brilliant in the first half and not so much in the second.
No matter who showed isolated splatters of brilliance, nobody will want to remember this game.
Links and Such
Like I did, the author assigned to this game at The Dream Shake probably had to change his entire recap after halftime.
A little bit of Damian Lillard Video goodness to brighten your night.
The Blazers begin a tough 6-game Eastern Conference road trip on Saturday night at 5:00 p.m. Pacific in Chicago.