Following its longest homestand of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers were back on the road for the first time seemingly since 2015 for a battle with the Houston Rockets, marking the second meeting between clubs fighting for position in the crowded Western Conference standings.
The biggest news of the night came about two hours before tip when it was announced Allen Crabbe would join Noah Vonleh on the inactive list due to illness, leaving the Blazers without a key rotation piece. However, it was the Houston bench which would struggle, as the Portland reserves outscored their counterparts 24-12 to help spur a balanced attack as the Blazers held on to win 96-79.
The Blazers were led by a third-straight double-double from Damian Lillard (21 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds), a quiet but efficient afternoon from CJ McCollum (16 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals) and a strong effort off the bench from Gerald Henderson (16 points on 5-8 shooting). Maurice Harkless had one of his best games as a Blazer (14 points, 6 rebounds) starting again in place for Vonleh.
The Rockets were led by the usual suspects: James Harden (33 points, 8 rebounds, 10 turnovers!) and Dwight Howard (17 points, 14 rebounds, 4 steals).
With real playoff implications murmuring in the background, both sides came out of the gates visibly energized. The excitement fueled a blistering pace and set the tone for the remainder of the contest.
Lillard played the role of facilitator for much of the opening period, nicely executing the pick-and-roll with Mason Plumlee and finding an open Harkless for two timely three-pointers. Portland shot 7-9 to start the game and took an early 17-11 lead on Al-Farouq Aminu's three.
The Rockets countered by going down-low to the tried-and-true presence of Howard, who had little trouble overpowering the much leaner Plumlee in the post. Using strength and a lethal drop-step, Howard hit all three of his first quarter shots and kept Houston afloat during the Blazer run.
Harden, who may have well inherited the title of Blazer Public Enemy No. 1, was his usual active self, taking nine shots in the first and scoring 12 points.
End of First: Portland 29, Houston 23
With Crabbe a scratch due to illness, Henderson filled in for his absence nicely - after connecting on a three late in the first, he opened the second drawing an and-1 baseline jumper, and then sinking a fadeaway over Howard the next trip down the floor on his way to 10 points in the half.
Henderson's free throws opened up a 16-point gash nearly halfway through the period at 44-28, and following Howard's layup at the other end, both squads went cold for the next four minutes - the Blazers missed on several point-blank attempts near the rim while Houston couldn't get anything to drop, shooting as low as 33% towards the end of the quarter.
Meyers Leonard continued to bolster his reputation of playing strong physical defense against sizable opponents, holding his own well when tasked with guarding Howard. He also chipped in five boards, three assists and knocked down a three during his 10-minute stint.
Harkless continued his productive play, corralling an offensive rebound for a putback off of Aminu's missed dunk and converting a layup in the final minute to extend Portland's lead to 18. He tied Henderson as the only Blazer scorers to reach double-digits.
Outside of Howard and Harden, Houston struggled to get offense from just about anywhere else - the Blazer bench, despite being short-handed, outscored the Rockets' 18-0 heading into the locker room. Trevor Ariza even picked up a technical foul during a stoppage in play by trying to pick up the basketball "soccer-style" by kicking it off the ground and accidentally sending it into the courstside stands.
Halftime: Portland 55, Houston 36
After a fairly quiet first half, Lillard and McCollum started to come alive during the third - McCollum put Harden on roller skates as he slipped around the seams of the Houston defense to set up a running floater off the glass, and Lillard picked Ariza's pocket to set up a fast-break layup which gave Portland a 25-point lead at 61-36.
Howard had his lefty-hook rejected by Aminu and McCollum continued the run, coolly draining an open three to give Portland's largest lead of 32 at 74-42 as a chorus of boos rained down from the rafters of the Toyota Center.
Striking memories of the previous matchup between these two teams, Harden responded with his own run, scoring nine straight points - including back-to-back threes - as the Blazers suddenly went ice cold. Portland failed to score for the final 4:20 of the period and Houston was allowed a bit of renewed life. Despite the drought, the Blazers still managed to put up 30 in the quarter and outscore the Rockets by two.
End of Third: Portland 74, Houston 53
Henderson picked up right where he left off earlier, scoring six straight points and restoring a bit of order.
The Rockets' stars' shooting woes continued, but Houston did manage to avoid joining historically bad company when Marcus Thornton's driving layup early in the period gave the Rockets its first bench points of afternoon.
After three quarters where the ball was thoroughly dominated by Howard and Harden, Houston's role players started to make some noise in the final minutes, but it may have been too little, too late. Corey Brewer scored eight in the quarter, including back-to-back threes with Thornton which cut Portland's lead down to eleven at 89-78 with 2:58 remaining.
It didn't matter, Aminu put the finishing touches on the ball game with a three pointer with just over a minute to go, and Lillard provided the exclamation mark with a fadeaway two on the next possession.
Portland gets a day off and then heads to Memphis to take on Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies Monday at FedEx Forum - tip is set for 6 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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