The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Houston Rockets 125-112 behind Damian Lillard’s 36 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists to move to 21-27 on the season and three games out of the Western Conference’s final playoff seed.
Playing Russell Westbrook once again extracted the best and fiercest basketball from Lillard, who recorded his first career triple-double in the victory. However, contributions up and down the lineup on both ends of the floor pushed Portland to its third victory in four games. Trevor Ariza scored 21 points, Hassan Whiteside recorded five blocks, Carmelo Anthony corralled 13 rebounds, and that’s just from the starting lineup.
Damian Lillard continues his hot streak
Lillard won Western Conference Player of the Week last week by averaging 52.7 points per contest and setting two franchise records in a single game. He continued his hot streak by recording a highly efficient 36 points tonight; he shot 11/21 from the field, 6/12 from three and 8/10 from the free throw line.
The Rockets threw every defense imaginable at the star point guard. They blitzed pick and rolls early on, which experienced some success. But once Lillard started making the appropriate passes out of the double team or simply denying the screen and taking it himself, Houston had no counter. Plus, how does someone guard this?
Highlight: Dame finishes a layup. pic.twitter.com/38C6Ze3k3l— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 30, 2020
He’s now surrounded by players who can punish opposing defenses for overcommitting on help defense. He found Whiteside on the roll several times and kicked it out to Ariza or Gary Trent Jr. for a three. Those options haven’t always existed in tandem for Lillard.
Off-ball movement by wings
Three points is more than two points. But for some players and in some situations, cutting to the hoop instead of standing open in the corner is a far superior option. Nassir Little and Ariza both recognized that tonight and ignited an offense that struggled to create easy buckets early on.
In Portland’s big second quarter run, cuts from both wings generated exciting dunks — maybe the highest percentage shot in the game — and energized the team.
ᴛʜɪs ᴡʜᴏʟᴇ ᴘᴏssᴇssɪᴏɴ pic.twitter.com/aPRvpscSp0— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 30, 2020
Lillard will continue to draw defenders into the paint and away from their matchups on the perimeter. Balancing catch-and-shoot three-pointers with these sorts of cuts will make the offense more dynamic. This win proves that as Portland outscored Houston 41-24 in the second quarter when a lot of the cuts and dunks happened.
Gary Trent Jr.
In his last five games, Trent Jr. is averaging 32 minutes and recording 15.4 points on 51.9% shooting and 45.7% from beyond the arc. He’s been a much-needed spark plug off the bench. Too often, the second unit relies on isolations from CJ McCollum and Anfernee Simons or post ups by Carmelo Anthony. His outside shooting created by the flow of the offense encourages more ball movement.
His confidence is growing alongside his minutes too. At the start of the fourth quarter amidst an offensive drought for both teams, Trent Jr. took Westbrook one-on-one. He drove hard, stopped on a dime and elevated for a smooth free throw line jumper. He hasn’t put the ball on the floor much in his first year and a half with Portland, but this stretch of games represents a shift in that ideology.
On the defensive end, the sophomore was frequently tasked with defending Westbrook. He stayed grounded and contested almost every layup without fouling. During the Blazers big run in the second quarter, he drew an offensive foul on Westbrook to maintain the momentum. (The call was initially on Trent Jr., but a challenge by Terry Stotts reversed it.) The young guard also demonstrated experience when defending two wings alone on the weak side, staying with contesting-distance of both when James Harden passed out of the double to not sacrifice a wide open triple.
Lillard-Whiteside pick and roll
The Blazers offense quickly went away from pick and rolls as Clint Capela successfully blitzed Lillard and forced him to make a difficult pass through four arms. But when the fourth quarter rolled around and the Rockets deployed a small lineup, the Lillard-Whiteside duo exploited the pick and roll.
Because Lillard had just pulled up from 30 feet and nailed it, Houston’s defense focused solely on him. They didn’t continue blitzing the pick and roll, so Lillard was able to attack the rim with Whiteside running parallel. On several consecutive possessions, he found his big man streaking for a simple finish at the rim. Houston had trimmed the lead to 15, but these repetitive outcomes pushed it back to 20 and let fans sit back in their seats for the remainder of the game.
The Portland Trail Blazers head to Los Angeles to take on the top-seeded Lakers on Friday, Jan. 31 at 7:00 p.m. PT. The game will be on ESPN.