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Blazers Come Up Big, Harden Even Bigger, as Rockets Prevail in Portland

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If the Western Conference stretch run and playoffs end up anything like this game, the NBA is in for a treat.

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

If James Harden and the Houston Rockets thought the best record in the NBA would carry them past the upstart Portland Trail Blazers—owners of a league-best 13-game winning streak—when the two teams collided on Tuesday evening, they had another think coming. The Blazers came into the contest with a clear game plan and enough confidence to believe they could win with it. They almost did. After an amazing, back-and-forth contest that featured superlative scoring and even better defense, Harden’s 42 points carried Houston over the pretenders to their throne, 115-111. It was less a final word than a prelude to what could become a striking matchup in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. The Rockets may walk away with Portland’s streak hanging from their belt, but the Blazers played well enough to let Houston know that should the teams meet in the postseason, they’d better pay attention.

Best Laid Plans...

From the outset, this game was defined not just by what each team could do, but by what they were willing to give up. Both Houston and Portland came in with definitive strategies. Each played like a well-prepared, veteran squad. Each seemed to concede that stopping the other entirely was out of the question, and that surgical incisions would open the path to victory.

The Blazers committed to getting back on defense before Houston could set up, crowding the Rockets at the three-point arc, then channeling penetration into a defensive wall at the rim. Success was measured in the bare millimeters between perimeter defenders and potential three-point shooters, plus blocked shots and stops down low. The Blazers had to concede layups and fouls when their defense wasn’t quick enough or when Rockets drivers proved too talented to stop under any circumstances. Kick-out threes were another potential danger, but the Blazers seldom paid that price because of Houston’s propensity to dribble before testing the middle, draining the clock too far to allow late passes to succeed. The Blazers were willing to live with Houston points, as long as they didn’t come quickly and three at a time.

Houston’s strategy was tightly focused: get into Damian Lillard at all costs, make sure CJ McCollum had to score on the move, let anybody else get any shot they wanted, then rebound hard. Like Portland, the Rockets were willing to see their opponent score, just not from the backcourt and not comfortably.

Whether executed to a tee or botched, these two basic strategies would dominate the flow of the game.

Amazing Fallout

The first period was typified by a fast tempo without actual fast break points...just what the Blazers wanted to see. James Harden featured prominently, making layups and getting fouled, but he connected on only one three-pointer. Houston attempted only four in the period, two of them ultra-deep. That’s an abysmally low number for them. In that way, Portland’s strategy worked wonders. Harden’s scoring became a logical side effect of limiting threes rather than a fatal breakdown. Jusuf Nurkic provided a wonderful backstop at the rim, eating space and blocking shots with aplomb. Maurice Harkless proved a capable sidekick, swinging in after defending screens to waylay attempts.

Meanwhile Al-Farouq Aminu became the beneficiary of Houston’s game plan, finding himself open from distance. Easy passes sailed through a defense designed to stop everyone else. Aminu made good on his attempts, canning four three-pointers in the period. When the smoke cleared, the Blazers led 31-27. They had earned an edge, but it wasn’t large.

The Big Shift

The second quarter featured a dramatic change in fortune, as the weakness in Portland’s plan showed up. Their bench players weren’t capable of executing on defense as the starters had. Mismatched sizes and relative inexperience left too much space for Houston on switches. Zach Collins and Ed Davis ended up on islands at the arc versus enemy scorers. After a bone-dry first period, the Rockets attempted 11 three-pointers in the second, hitting 7...a huge turn-around.

Houston’s defensive plan proved more durable, not just because their bench was stronger, but because they were able to shift attention to whichever guards played the Lillard-McCollum roles without sacrificing anything. The Blazers scored inside off of hard drives and posts—Nurkic and Evan Turner providing clout in the paint—but they managed only four three-point attempts, hitting one. Houston made up the first-quarter deficit and the score was knotted at 55 heading into the break.

A Fantastic Third

The third period was one of the best-played of the entire season as the teams mirrored each other. Talented players converted great shots from deep outside and deep inside. The quarter provided a clinic on efficient scoring with moves and counter-moves.

Houston gained an advantage as Nurkic picked up fouls, limiting his aggressiveness inside and rendering him far less useful as a paint protector. Their layup quotient went through the roof. Then Lillard started toying with the radar operators watching him, laying aside Dame Dolla in favor of Dame Decoy. He’d drive the lane, draw defenders, then find easy passes. He hit Harkless for a pair of three-pointers, while Nurkic provided the same service for Aminu on the other side of the floor. Both teams topped 30 in the period, courtesy of their adjustments. Portland led 87-86 headed to the fourth.

Second Verse, Same as the First

Unfortunately, Portland’s second-unit deficiency reared its ugly head once more during the late shift. Chris Paul hit a pair of three-pointers at the outset of the fourth, while Eric Gordon added one of his own. The shots were quick, deadly, and came with a reasonable amount of open space...all the things the Blazers were trying to prevent.

Portland battled back once more as Nurkic took center stage, forgetting his foul situation and dominating on both ends for a four-minute, mid-period stretch. When Lillard converted a layup with 5:00 remaining, the score read 101-100, Houston. The Blazers were right there.

This Is the End, My Friend

Sadly, that would be it. Portland ended up blinking before the Rockets did. Houston’s starters finally found open threes against their Portland counterparts, first off the pass, then from Harden against a defense scrambling to compensate. PJ Tucker and Trevor Ariza connected on the assisted triples, while Harden hit two of his own. Those four shots accounted for 12 of Houston’s final 14 points. The Blazers just didn’t have the juice to close out against a Rockets team that stayed cool under pressure.

Lillard tried to bring his team back, scoring five points in the final two minutes, but they came hard: a layup and three free throws. That proved the core of a 7-0 run, but CJ McCollum’s final floater still left Portland down 113-111 with 28 seconds remaining.

The final straw came with 4.8 seconds left when Paul missed a well-guarded leaner, but grabbed his own offensive rebound...one of the few the Blazers conceded all night. Portland intentionally fouled him with 1.3 seconds remaining. He made both free throws, providing the final 115-111 score.

The Easy Explanation Isn’t Right

On paper the outcome of this game came down to a disparity of stars. Paul and Harden combined for 64 points, Lillard and McCollum for 28.

Give credit to the Rockets for corralling Portland’s big scorers, but that wasn’t really the story. They sold their souls to do so, leading to monster nights from Portland’s supporting cast. In one evening, Houston’s defensive choices combined with Portland’s unselfishness to do what two entire seasons of spin have not accomplished: making the 3rd-7th men in Portland’s rotation look like they were worth the salaries the Blazers are actually paying them. Portland played as a team tonight, a darn good one.

Even with Lillard and McCollum coming in 20 points shy of their collective season average, the Blazers still scored 111, stayed within two points of the Rockets until the final two seconds, and only lost by four to the best team in the league.

Two huge numbers explain this loss. Both are systemic and neither one has to do with the star battle that everyone else will be touting.

  • The Rockets ended up shooting 19-36 (53%) from distance when the Blazers wanted to prevent that. After Portland held them 1-4 in the first period, Houston shot 18-32 on threes.
  • The Rockets reserves scored 37 points on 14-26 shooting, going 7-14 from deep. Portland’s bench managed only 23 points on 10-23 shooting, 2-5 from distance.

Portland’s other major weaknesses—Lillard and McCollum’s combined 0-12 three-point shooting plus Nurkic’s foul trouble—were attributable to game plans. Portland could have survived them...in many ways they did. The Blazers ended up +10 in points in the paint, +4 in fast break points, and dead even in free throw makes. They won the rebounding battle and committed few turnovers. Houston was able to execute their strategy even during off shifts, while Portland could not. That made the difference.

Even with the loss, this was a game worth remembering, one of the high points of the 2017-18 season. Portland’s 13-game winning streak may have ended, but they looked like the team they always wanted to be in the process. Good enough.

Praise for the “Other” Guys

The names written in lore from this outing are...

  • Jusuf Nurkic: 9-10 from the field, 21 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks, and some mighty defense with only a couple of silly fouls (and resulting limp plays to protect himself) marring the effort.
  • Al-Farouq Aminu: 6-8 from distance, 22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal, a block, and even more great defense.
  • Maurice Harkless: 5-5 shooting, 3-3 on threes, 17 points, 2 blocked shots, and excellent help in the lane.
  • Evan Turner: 5-10 from the floor, 10 points, 3 assists...the big scoring during Portland’s down shifts.

For those counting, that’s 70 points, 23 rebounds, 11 assists, 7 blocks, 3 steals, and 26-36 shooting with 9-12 from distance for that quartet. Wow.

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The Blazers will try to start a new win streak against the Boston Celtics on Friday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com