The Houston Rockets are the best team in the NBA this season. After proving it repeatedly for three quarters against the hapless Portland Trail Blazers—missing superstar point guard Damian Lillard due to an ankle injury—the Rockets almost let the dregs of Portland’s third string complete a miracle comeback. After Houston blew a 17-point lead in less than four minutes, a penultimate shot by red-hot Chris Paul in the final seconds saved them from near-fatal embarrassment. With the game hanging by a thread, Portland guard CJ McCollum’s buzzer-beating three went just right, preserving a 96-94 Rockets victory.
With Lillard out of the game, Portland’s offense was expected to be the first casualty in this matchup. It was; the Blazers scored only 17 in the opening period. Still, defense proved the greater lack. The Rockets didn’t pursue their usual strategy of force-feeding James Harden, who routinely averages 8 points per game against the Blazers (turned sideways). Instead they let Paul operate against Shabazz Napier, or whatever open space was impersonating Shabazz Napier on any given play. Portland’s guards tried to contain him, but Paul might as well have been guarded by Father Christmas and Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s. May he rest in peace. CP3 would convert 4 field goals in the first period, every one right down the middle of the floor...the exact space defenses try to take away. A few buckets by Jusuf Nurkic (interspersed with a few comical post possessions) put the Blazers into double figures, but Houston still led 36-17 after one.
Portland scored more against the Rockets bench in the second period. Nurkic continued his tirade, aided by Wade Baldwin IV with a couple of threes and a dunk. The Blazers still couldn’t stop anybody on the other end, though. Houston hit 6 triples, two by Paul. Having swallowed the Blazers whole in the first, the Rockets proceeded to digest them, leading 66-44 at the half.
If Portland had any delusions of planting a seed of doubt for a possible post-season matchup, it ended up right on the bottom of Paul’s sneakers.
Take Your Foot Off the Gas, but at Least Leave it in the Car
McCollum caught fire a little in the third period and Portland executed smart offense, but it came against a clearly disinterested opponent giving most of their shots to reserves. Harden barely touched the ball; Paul took a few shots then started passing...it was playground time for the Rockets. Portland snuck within 71-84 as the quarter closed, but Houston would soon push it to 17 again, tucking away their bib and patting their stomach contentedly.
But then, like a terrible, five-headed alien, Portland’s third-stringers—Napier, Baldwin, Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman, and Caleb Swanigan—burst from the midsection of the Rockets lineup to force turnovers, missed shots, and general mayhem. Houston’s reserves responded by looking down at their belly and screaming, “EWWW! YUCK! NOOOO!” Thus began an extended scoreless streak for the Rockets, allowing Portland to erode the lead to 12.
At that point Mike D’Antoni, woken up in his Captain’s Berth by the wailing of the ship’s alarm, sent Harden and Paul to see what was the matter, figuring his well-armed, veteran crew could easily deal with the threat. The star guards arrived on scene, cocked their weapons, smirked, and let out with their mighty battle cry: “AUUUGHHHH! IT’S EATING MY FACE!!! YE GODS, THE HUMANITY!!!”
Don’t believe me? After Harden pushed the edge to 94-77 with 3:57 to play, the successive scoring buckets read:
- Wade Baldwin layup
- Pat Connaughton dunk and one
- Wade Baldwin floater
- Georgios Papagiannis tip-in
- Caleb Swanigan 20-footer
- Jake Layman jumper
- Jake Layman layup
- Pat Connaughton layup
No, I am not kidding. And no names have been changed to protect the innocent. That really happened.
Best of all, there was nary a Rockets point to be seen in during that whole run. Harden actually missed two free throws at the end of it that could have, if not iced the victory, at least made it much harder for Portland to reach. He was too busy trying to get globules of Baldwin pus out of his eye to make the foul shots.
So all of a sudden the score was tied with 6.1 seconds left, Houston ball. Their master stroke came down to Paul hitting a well-guarded, extended layup high off the glass with 0.8 seconds left...in no way a freebie, coming against some of the best point-of-attack defense Portland showed all night.
At that point Blazers Coach Terry Stotts chickened out. Instead of sticking with the theme by recalling C.J. Wilcox from the G-League to take the final shot, McCollum got the call, attempting a turn-around three for the win. It looked decent, but didn’t fall. Houston walked away looking pretty darn angry about what almost happened.
Seriously? You want this analyzed?
All Portland’s bench guys who never play shot 17-25 and scored 41 points. The one guy who is a part of the top rotation—Zach Collins—went 0-4 and scored 1.
The starting guards of Napier and McCollum hit only 9 of 34 shots (26%) while the supporting starters hit 13 of 22 (59%).
The Blazers were getting killed on the boards, in transition, and in turnovers until They Who Shall Not Be Played reversed all three categories.
If this story showed up on Stranger Things, you’d go, “Naw...that’s not believable.” The only thing missing was the actual win. Given a 17-point comeback in four minutes, it’s hard to mourn that much, even though it would have been great for Portland’s playoff seeding and crushing for Houston’s ego.
The last time I was in Las Vegas, a few years ago, I was sitting at a table with a friend at 2am. We were playing Let It Ride, a poker variant where you see three cards and the dealer hides two, then you can take back some of your bet or “let it ride” if you think the five cards together spell a winning hand.
This was our last night and I was up significantly for the trip, so I decided what the heck. On the final hand I laid out $100 times three...for me a monstrous wager, by far the biggest I’ve ever made. My friend looked at me like, “Whoa!” And the dealer dealt me a 5, 6, and 9 of diamonds. That’s a widowmaker hand—looks good with bad odds of actually winning—but the payoff on a flush is 8 to 1 and a straight flush, 200 to 1. Hey, it was the last night, so I left it out there.
Then the dealer flipped the 7 of diamonds. I did a little math in my head. Figuring that $300 at 200-to-1 = $60,000, I said to my friend, “If that next card is the 8 of diamonds, we are going to be pretty happy, and the hotel’s on me.”
Naturally, the dealer flipped the bumblefrack of clubs or something for the final card and I didn’t win squat. He said, “Man, you’re pretty calm for almost having won that much money and then not!” My friend agreed. But look...I didn’t expect to win the thing. The odds were still way against. It was worth every penny, though, just getting to watch him flip that last card and knowing it could happen. I still took a little money home from the trip, and I have the story to tell. The experience was fun and worth paying for, even if I’ll never repeat it.
That’s exactly what this game was like for Portland fans. It would have been better had they won. The impact would have been significant too. But what do you want? It was worth it just to see five players make head-scratching Houston fans flip to the WAY back of their programs, then almost pull off a huge comeback against the starters from the best team in the universe.
It was a wild ride. Homecourt clinching can come another day.
I’m guessing The Dream Shake got a little shook tonight.
The Trail Blazers play the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night at 6:00 PM, Pacific. They need one more victory to assure themselves homecourt advantage in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, and they got good news on the injury front tonight. Damian Lillard is returning.
—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / firstname.lastname@example.org