The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Houston Rockets tonight without the services of center Jusuf Nurkic, recovering from an ankle injury. For three quarters, it didn’t look like they’d miss him. Damian Lillard hit threes like they were layups. Portland’s patchwork lineup hustled to fast break points and forced turnovers. If they couldn’t out-muscle or out-talent the Rockets, they’d simply outscore them. But even in the midst of amazing runs, the Blazers had no answer for James Harden and Chris Paul. When the game hung in the balance in the fourth quarter, the Rockets trailing by 14, those two superstars keyed a 40-19 period to put their team in the lead. As Houston bore down, Portland’s 60% shooting from the field slipped towards 50%...brilliant on any other night against any other team, but not enough to preserve the victory. Despite dead-eye marksmanship and a spirit effort, the Blazers watched the Rockets exit with a 124-117 win, completing a humbling 0-4 home stand and sending them back to the drawing board in quest of a victory.
The Blazers started off the game sizzling, courtesy of Damian Lillard, who bombed away from the perimeter without conscience or flaw. Lillard’s 4-5 shooting from distance in the period, plus strikes from CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu, led Portland to 37 total points. Starter Meyers Leonard got off to a little bit of a shaky start but soon settled in, setting monster picks and rolling with effect. Chris Paul picked up two fouls and found his effect limited. James Harden kept his team afloat with three triples, plus the customary foul shots. Portland led 37-31 after one.
Lillard stayed hot in the second, hitting another pair of threes in spite of laser-like attention from Houston’s defense. He proved generous when double-teamed, hitting jump shooters or cutters with ease. But Houston started their inexorable march back into the game on the backs of Paul and Harden. CP3 would tally 11 in the quarter. Harden went berserk in the second half of the period, earning free throw after free throw off of penetration. Portland turnovers didn’t help. Lillard finished the first half with a stunning 22 points, but Harden outdid him with 28. The score was knotted at 62 at halftime.
The Blazers struck from distance again at the start of the third, with McCollum, Aminu, and Leonard all connecting on threes in the first 6 minutes. Houston responded tepidly. They looked as if they wanted to get players involved in the offense outside of their starting guards. It ended up being a huge mistake. They’d connect on only 5 field goals in the entire period. The Blazers ended up making 7 three-pointers before the quarter ended...hitting more triples than Houston hit shots. The only life preserver for the Rockets came at the line. Portland got in the penalty early and Houston attempted 16 foul shots in the period. The Blazers still led 98-84 after three. The news was not all good, however. Lillard rolled his ankle with 25 seconds left in the period, heading for the bench and setting up a scary finish for the home team.
The Blazers played into those fears as the fourth commenced, committing 3 straight turnovers on their first 3 possessions. Houston’s guards woke up, driving on reserve players or dishing to open shooters. By the 7:00 mark the Rockets were back within 5. That’s when Lillard returned. He was only a shadow of his former self, however, unable to get lift on his shot or separation off the dribble. Harden had no such trouble, putting Portland’s defense through the washing machine, earning unopposed layups out of halfcourt sets against a threadbare frontcourt. As Portland faltered, Houston took the lead on a Trevor Ariza three with 3:40 remaining. They never relinquished it. The period ended as it had started; the Blazers couldn’t hit enough jumpers to make up for the steady flow layups and free throws the Rockets generated. Portland’s 14-point lead at the start of the fourth might as well have not existed. Houston won the final period 40-19 and took the game by 7.
Despite the apparent ease with which both teams scored, this was a deceptively complex game. The outcome hinged on Portland’s ability to make threes versus Houston’s ability to score inside and at the charity stripe, but the affair featured more moves and counter-moves than a Spy vs. Spy vignette.
The Blazers drew first blood not just via Lillard’s three-pointers, but through the screens and feints that got him there. Meyers Leonard was active in the high pick and roll, appearing to surprise the Rockets with his ferocity. When Houston countered by coming farther out on the court to stop Lillard before screens freed him, one or two passes found wings cutting to the hoop for dunks (Pat Connaughton) or open for even more three-pointers (Al-Farouq Aminu). The Rockets were not expecting the Blazers to display such ball-movement and dead-eye shooting.
As Portland started feeling good on offense, their tempo picked up. The Blazers had 15 fast break points tonight, nearly quadrupling their normal output. Tonight marked the tail end of Houston’s current road trip and they played like it. For much of the game, the Blazers struck where the opponent wasn’t and succeeded mightily.
Through it all, though, Portland never had a real answer for Harden or Paul. Harden scored 48 on 16-29 shooting, 12-14 from the foul line. Paul tallied 26 on 8-14 shooting, 9-10 from the stripe. Harden also hit 4 of 7 threes. Free throws will be mentioned prominently in coverage of this game, but it wasn’t just a matter of the charity stripe keeping Houston afloat (though it did just that during the middle quarters). Foul shots were a symptom of an underlying disease rather than the primary cause of the loss. Nothing the Blazers did slowed down Houston’s attack for long. Fouls or no fouls, they couldn’t defend them. Their only option was to outscore the Rockets.
That set up the fateful fourth quarter during which Coach Terry Stotts opted to go with a small-ball lineup. The Blazers played without traditional centers. Noah Vonleh got run, but that was it. Evan Turner, Pat Connaughton, even Jake Layman saw action. Smaller, more lithe scorers were the order of the day.
Up 14 with a quarter to play, the Blazers just wanted to keep the scoreboard running. It was as if they were in a Volkswagen Jetta with a BB Gun, being chased by a garbage truck. They weren’t going to stop it; they weren’t going to wound it. All they could do was hit the gas as hard as they could and try to outrun it.
Interior play ended up being the fatal flaw in the plan. When Harden or Paul beat a perimeter defender—which they did frequently and with ease—they found zero defenders watching the rim. Nobody rotated; nobody interrupted them in any way. They basically generated fast break layups from the top of the key. It was as astonishing and horrible as can be imagined.
Less obvious, but also telling: the Blazers couldn’t make headway on the boards in the fourth. They mostly kept up, but the dominant rebounding team that controls tempo and time was nowhere to be found.
Stotts could have re-inserted big men to address both issues, except...
- The big men hadn’t been effective helping against Houston’s guards anyway, frequently fouling in the process of trying. Stotts may have figured that keeping more mobile defenders on the floor would cut down on penetration and would stop the clock less frequently with infractions.
- Portland’s big guys can’t score. Not only would they fail to jump start the defense, they also would have provided fewer outlets when the Rockets bore down on Lillard and McCollum, perhaps hamstringing the offense as well.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice the fourth quarter was an utter disaster. The theoretical mistakes the bigs could have made were overshadowed by the massacre of the small-ball group.
Meanwhile the one guy who might have solved the problem—Jusuf Nurkic—sat in street clothes, unable to play.
In the long run, it’s probably safer to look on the bright side of this performance. The Blazers shot 51%, 44% from the arc. Lillard and McCollum were brilliant, as were 7 of the 8 players who normally participate in the rotation...at least on the offensive end.
The Blazers lost the game in the paint (54-36 deficit) and at the foul line (42-12 free throw disparity). Add in Lillard’s second-half ankle issue and Portland allowing the Rockets to shoot 40% from the arc while getting dominated inside too, and this loss was all but fated despite the pretty point total.
The Blazers could only cover their lack of defense and talent with shooting for so long. Hitting 18-41 from the arc was a heck of an accomplishment...taking them farther than anticipated. Had Nurkic been healthy, it almost certainly would have led to a win. Had the bigs been trustworthy enough to play in the fourth quarter, it might have anyway. As it was, well...this was clearly the best of the four losses on Portland’s 0-4 home stand? Maybe that’s something.
It’d be hard to overstate what Damian Lillard did on the offensive end tonight, particularly in the first half. He put up an amazing 9-16 from the three-point arc on his way to 35 points and 6 assists. He wasn’t the same in the fourth quarter and he was never pure on defense, but given the constraints of his abilities, health, and the team around him, his performance tonight was darn near miraculous.
CJ McCollum prospered in every quarter but the second, scoring 28 on 11-21 shooting overall. He and Lillard both committed 5 turnovers, targets of a zealous Rockets defense captained by Trevor Ariza. McCollum also came up nearly dry from the arc, shooting but 2-8. His defense wasn’t appreciably better than Lillard’s.
Al-Farouq Aminu had another great night from distance, 5-8 from long range giving him 15 total points. Unfortunately he wasn’t free to roam and help against the guards on defense in that fateful fourth period. He and Vonleh were the biggest men on the floor for the Blazers. The Rockets ran screens against Vonleh instead of Aminu. It worked for them.
Meyers Leonard did a credible job with the starting assignment. His defense was hit-and-miss, his rebounding somewhat doughy, but his screens were quite solid and he hit 5-6 shots. He boosted the Blazers to a great first half.
It felt like Evan Turner should have helped more on both ends of the floor with his offensive ability, his size to counter Houston wings, and his veteran experience. It didn’t work out that way. He ranged between non-factor and liability.
Ed Davis did incredible work on the boards and was the only Portland big who looked like a big tonight. He hit 4 easy shots and grabbed 9 rebounds in 15 minutes. His inability to range high on the floor kept him from playing longer, but in retrospect he might have been a decent option late in the game when the Blazers needed just one or two more stops and rebounds.
Pat Connaughton looked great in the first half as Houston paid attention to Portland’s red-hot three-point shooting and looked the other way while Connaughton slipped to the rim for layups. After they shut that off, he was ineffective. He shot 0-5 from the arc and his defense was not much help.
Noah Vonleh’s most memorable contributions all happened during the fourth period when he tried to cover guards on the perimeter. It did not go well. He might make the highlight reel, but he’ll be on the wrong end of it.
Jake Layman didn’t look like he belonged on the floor tonight. Zach Collins had 3 blocks and moved nicely but that disguised the fact that he got pushed around and wasn’t able to contribute to sets that weren’t simple for him. This is one of those games where casually it looked like he did well but professionally, he has a ways to go.
The Dream Shake might rename themselves The Harden Hustle after this one.
Portland will face the Golden State Warriors (without Steph Curry) on Monday night at 7:30 PM, Pacific.
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