Led by 64 combined points from James Harden and Russell Westbrook—including a triple-double from the latter—the Houston Rockets handed the Portland Trail Blazers their third loss in the last four games tonight. With the win, Houston extended its winning streak to a league-leading eight games as Portland fell to 5-9 on the season.
The Blazers only hung around for the first 12 minutes. After finishing the first quarter ahead by one, they got outscored by the Rockets by 15 points in the second quarter, then nine more in the third. The final deficit was 24 points.
Damian Lillard Stays in Minor Slump
Damian Lillard began the 2019-20 season on fire, averaging 33 points on 49.3% shooting from the field and 39.2% from three through the first 10 games. But in the last four, he’s scored just 17.6 points on 28.6% field goal and 22.2% three-point shooting.
Defenses are altering their game plans to contain Lillard and force anyone else — including CJ McCollum — to carry the offense. In a couple games, opponents have even thrown a box-and-one at the All-NBA point guard, a testament to his scoring abilities. This game was no different as they trapped Lillard on screens and sent Clint Capela to contest every interior look.
Plain and simple, Dame looked tired tonight. He missed attempts around the rim he normally finishes, didn’t exhibit his usual composed footwork, and played slow on defense. On screens, he’d reach in and try for a steal without calling a switch, leading to two defenders on one Rockets player and leaving another wide open to score.
Transition Offense a Net Negative
The Blazers, one of the slower offensive teams the past few years, have made a point of running more in transition to catch defenses off-guard this season. Early in the game, they attacked Houston on fast breaks that led to open three-pointers or easy finishes at the rim. The quick transition from a Hassan Whiteside rebound to Lillard or McCollum finding a good shot opportunity kept Portland in the game through the first 12-15 minutes.
However, focusing on forwarding the ball left Whiteside on his own on the defensive glass. Already subpar at boxing out, Whiteside tried to outstretch everyone else for these boards and sacrificed a lot of offensive rebounds to the Rockets. Capela is one of the few centers capable of matching Whiteside’s verticality; the results weren’t pretty.
While Portland tallied 11 fast break points, Houston grabbed 17 offensive rebounds for 23 second chance points.
Nassir Little Brings Energy Again
In what could be his last game at starting power forward for now (with Carmelo Anthony coming on board) Nassir Little continued to show his strengths — and weaknesses. He got off to a quick start fighting for offensive rebounds and drawing fouls around the hoop. He finished the night leading the team in free throw attempts with six, but only made half of them.
Beyond his involvement in the paint, Little failed to space the floor. Before tonight, he had made 2 of 11 three-pointers. Against Houston, he added four more misses to that abysmal percentage. Defenders cheated off him all night, which made every Blazers shot in the paint that much harder.
When Houston had the ball, Harden hunted Little on switches after earning a four-point play on the rookie in the first quarter. (He’d earn another four-point play on Little in the second quarter that extended Houston’s lead to 14.) Little showed lapses in defensive attention when not defending the ball and ultimately ended up fouling out in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter.
A Much-Needed New Offensive Wrinkle
Much of the criticism during Portland’s shaky start to the season has stemmed from the isolation-heavy offense. Too many times are Lillard and McCollum required to create their own shot as their teammates stand and watch the clock tick down.
Tonight Coach Terry Stotts ran guards around off-ball screens on the wing to drag defenders out to the perimeter. The screener, inevitably one of the forwards, slipped the pick and cut straight to the basket. While all eyes were on Lillard or McCollum, the ball-handler found the cutting forward for an easy finish. This happened on four different occasions tonight, with three of them leading to two points.
Balancing the starting guards’ time as a decoy and scorer will not only provide open looks for other players, it will discourage defenses from throwing the kitchen sink at Lillard and McCollum.
The Portland Trail Blazers continue its road trip tomorrow against the injury-ridden New Orleans Pelicans at 5:00 p.m. PT. The game will air on NBATV.