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Blazers Shut Down Harden, Beat Rockets 117-107

Damian Lillard and the Blazers might be the hottest thing in the NBA right now. They picked up their fifth consecutive win with a 117-107 victory over the Houston Rockets.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets have spent all season overwhelming opponents with an analytics-inspired offense. They hold the third best record in the NBA and the top offense in the league, all while rarely shooting in the midrange.

But tonight the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Rockets at their own game. Portland matched or outclassed Houston in every measure of offensive efficiency and racked up an impressive 117 points to the Rockets’ 107.

The superstar battle between Damian Lillard and James Harden mirrored the team results. Lillard finished with 31 points on 18 shots and added 11 assists, while Harden shot only 11-for-30 (36.7 percent) and had a season low 4 assists.

Game Flow

The Moda Center’s playoff atmosphere was clearly audible on the TNT broadcast throughout the game tonight. The players on both sides responded with a high energy, high scoring first quarter. The Blazers set the tone for the night be scoring 30 of their 32 points either in the paint or at the 3-point line. Maurice Harkless, who was being checked by Harden, led the effort with 11 points mostly scored by exploiting the Rockets’ defensive focus on Lillard. The Blazers had a one-point lead, 32-31, at the end of the quarter.

With Lillard out to start the second, and CJ McCollum struggling all night (4-for-15 shooting, 12 points) the Blazers offense should have fallen apart. Instead, Allen Crabbe did his best Morey-Ball audition and scored 11 points on a perfect 3-for-3 on 3-pointers. Evan Turner and Jusuf Nurkic blanketed Harden in the pick-and-roll and the Rockets could not keep pace with the Blazers offense. Portland stretched their lead to nine, 65-56, at the half on the strength of a super-efficient nine 3-pointers on 16 attempts.

In the third quarter the Blazers shifted their attack from outside to inside, and hit the heart of the Rockets’ defense. Lillard led the charge with 12 points and 3 assists in the quarter. He split the defense for several nifty lay-ups and when the Rockets adjusted, Lillard had no problem finding the open man for the bucket. The Blazers extended their lead to 11 heading into the final quarter.

It looked like the Blazers would be able to cruise to an easy victory, but then two things happened. First, Lou Williams, who had been shooting terribly heading into the fourth, replaced Harden as the playmaker and exploited the (intentional) mid-range hole in Portland’s defense - he would finish with 10 in the quarter. Second, the Blazers went ice cold from beyond the arc, finishing the quarter 0-for-9 on triples. With the efficiency from the first three quarters lost, the Blazers struggled mightily to score and the Rockets took advantage. Trevor Ariza hit a 3-pointer with 2:28 to go and all-of-a-sudden the game was tied at 105.

Before the all-star break, the Blazers likely would have folded under the pressure of the lost lead. But this is the post-Nurkic trade era! Rather than panicking, the Blazers clamped down on defense and forced Harden into multiple missed shots and a turnover in the final two minutes. On the other end, the Blazers found Nurkic rolling to the hoop for scores in the paint, or McLillard drew free throws. The result was an 8-0 run that turned a 105-105 tie into a 113-105 Blazer advantage. The run was capped by this sequence from Allen Crabbe:

A few free throws later and the Blazers had a 117-107 victory; they’re fifth consecutive win.

Overall, Harden, especially, will want to forget those final two minutes:


Symbolic of their obsessive adherence to analytics-friendly basketball, the Rockets set a new NBA season record for 3-pointers tonight. Ironically, despite the new record, the Blazers played the analytical game more effectively than the Rockets.

Specifically the Blazers had five more 3-pointers than the Rockets, an equal number of field goal attempts in the paint, and only one less free throw. Given that the Rockets rely almost exclusively on outscoring the opponent via efficiency to make up for a middling defense, this trend spelled doom for Houston.

To drive the point home, consider the shot chart for tonight’s game and note that the Blazers and Rockets attempted a nearly identical number of mid-range shots:


The Blazers accomplished this by playing excellent defense on Harden. Houston’s star did have 30 points, but it took him 30 shots to get there and he got to the line “only” seven times. Turner and Harkless covered Harden for most of the night, but Blazers coach Terry Stotts also deserves credit for devising a varied scheme that took away Houston’s strengths.

The Blazers slowed Harden by essentially using Houston’s dogmatic adherence to efficiency against them. Portland ceded the inefficient mid-range jumper in the pick and roll - Nurkic and Meyers Leonard regularly dropped back into the paint to either cover the opposing center or contest a shot around the rim while Harkless and Turner recovered. Harden would often either shoot an out of rhythm shot in the middle of the floor, or force a pass to the perimeter:

The Blazers also overplayed the Rockets’ shooters on the perimeter, forcing them into missed 3-pointers. Consequently, Harden, the league leader in assists, finished with a season-low of four.

Given how well their gameplan worked out, the Blazers probably should have had a larger lead heading into the final quarter. But the Rockets kept the score close with a 26-10 advantage on second chance points despite having only a 13-11 lead in offensive rebounds.

Lillard’s 31 points and 11 assists led the charge for the Blazers’ offense, but the supporting cast of Crabbe, Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu all deserve credit as well. They combined for 49 points on 20-for-34 shooting. Crabbe’s long range accuracy helped stretch the defense significantly and opened up driving lanes for Lillard’s big third quarter.

Meanwhile, Harkless spent a good portion of the night being checked by Harden and took advantage with opportunistic cuts, and also some designed plays. The Rockets are now starting Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon, Harden and expect Harden to check power forwards - not exactly an elite defensive plan. Taking advantage of that weakness is a key to beating the Rockets and Harkless played an essential role in that.

Bottom Line

The Blazers topped their most impressive win of the season on Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets with another extremely impressive outing. Beating the Rockets at their own game is no small feat, and the Blazers almost made it look easy tonight. Portland finishes the month of March with a 13-3 record, and a 6-2 record against playoff teams. They have now won five games in a row and are playing their best basketball in the post-LaMarcus Aldridge era.

Individual Notes

Damian Lillard makes the offense tick. He was phenomenal tonight, as usual, and had several impressive drives through multiple defenders. The Rockets did rattle him late with a blitzing double team that forced a turnover at a key point in the clutch, but overall Lillard was excellent and easily outplayed Harden.

CJ McCollum couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. He finished with only 12 points and missed several open shots. To make matters worse, McCollum began forcing shots after struggling to score early in the game. He simply doesn’t have Lillard’s playmaking skills to justify the overly aggressive takes when his shot isn’t falling.

Jusuf Nurkic was a huge factor on both ends (pun intended). He played a key role in the “stop Harden” gameplan and also scored 19 and grabbed 11 rebounds. Nurk did come up limping after landing awkwardly on another player’s foot late in the game, but finished the fourth quarter.

Noah Vonleh got into foul trouble early and never found a rhythm. Only 3 points and 3 rebounds in 15 minutes.

Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Allen Crabbe all brought the goods tonight. With McCollum off-kilter, and Vonleh struggling through fouls, the Blazers don’t win if these guys don’t show up.

Evan Turner is clearly still hampered by the hand brace - he grabs it after practically every missed shot. But he deserves credit for the defense on Harden.

Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA |