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Trail Blazers Overcome Defensive Problems, Topple Rockets in OT

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James Harden played big, but CJ McCollum equally so. Portland’s defense proved just steady enough to make it count.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers took down the Houston Rockets 128-126 in overtime In a Moda Center matchup that deserved to have fans in the stands. CJ McCollum hit a game-winner with six seconds left, putting the cap on a career-high nine threes for the evening. McColum scored 44 points along with 8 assists. Damian Lillard was second on the team with 32 points. Jusuf Nurkic had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.

The Rockets, who were shorthanded in this one, also saw impressive performances from James Harden and Christian Wood. Harden had 44 points and 17 assists while Wood had 31 points and 13 boards.

First Quarter

Portland looked significantly stronger to start this game, working the two-man game on offense and attacking aggressively. Lillard hit two early threes. Both he and McCollum found Jusuf Nurkic often in the post. The Bosnian Beast had a good mismatch down low, with Christian Wood not quite strong enough to handle Nurkic. On the other end, however, Houston found several easy buckets. Portland usually sent a player and a half guarding Harden, but he just diced Portland for easy assists to Wood and others. Harden had eight assists in the quarter as Houston shot 63.2% from the field, but Portland only trailed by four — 31-27 — at the end of the first.

Second Quarter

Portland’s second unit started the next quarter, and they struggled at first. Carmelo Anthony failed to find a rhythm on offense and was lackadaisical on defense. Houston pushed the ball early and often, only getting stronger once Harden checked back in. He either pushed it in transition or pick-and-rolled Portland to death. The Harden-Wood combo was significantly more effective than anything Portland could counter with, and the result was a first-half double-double for Harden and 15 easy points for Wood. Luckily, Dame was aggressive in hunting baskets, scoring 21 points in the half, keeping Houston’s lead at 68-58. It easily could’ve been worse.

Third Quarter

Portland came out with a sense of urgency to begin the second half. The defensive intensity got upped and they were able to capitalize on Houston’s mistakes. McCollum went on one of his patented “Three-J” hot streaks and all of a sudden Portland was back in it. CJ had 14 points in the quarter, including four threes. Without McCollum’s streak and Derrick Jones Jr.’s defense, Portland would have been dead in the water. Jones was vital to holding the Rockets to zero made threes in the third quarter. That helped Portland close the gap to 85-84 with one to play.

Fourth Quarter

The Blazers took momentum into the fourth. Jones Jr. picked up Harden full court and was key to stifling (or at least slightly controlling) Harden multiple times. Combine that with Dame finding his shot again and McCollum staying hot and you have a recipe for a fourth-quarter takeover. The Blazers took ideal form, with Lillard and McCollum using their gravity to draw defenders and find teammates. But Harden and Wood weren’t going to let Portland win that easily. They continued to attack the rim with success. With the game tied at 113, Lillard tried to get a shot over P.J. Tucker to end it, but it was no good. Overtime loomed.

Overtime

The teams spent the beginning of the extra period trading buckets with one another. McCollum hit an elbow jumper and Harden responded with a shot of his own, generated effortlessly. Dame threw an astounding lob to Jones, but Wood responded with a post shot. Harden wouldn’t let Houston break, hitting a signature step-back three over Covington with 15 seconds left to make the score 126-125 Houston. But McCollum would not go away. He hitting a three of his own off of a Lillard dish with six seconds left to take back the lead. Harden turned it over on the final possession and Portland earned their first win of the year, 128-126.

The First Lillard-McCollum explosion of the year

Lillard had a tough opening night against the Utah Jazz, scoring only nine points after a point-free first half. He had 21 midway through this one and built on it from there. Dame loves to feel the game out in the first half, but if Portland is going to struggle defensively, they need Lillard to not be afraid to hunt for early shots. He is the engine driving everything. The sooner he can set the tone, the better.

The big comeback wouldn’t have happened without McCollum. Few players are more tantalizing when they get hot than CJ, and this was the exact version that Portland needed. He was absolutely unstoppable, ruining Houston’s chances of putting this game away by pulling off some absolute wizardry with the ball. Lillard kept Portland in the game early, but McCollum was the one that called it.

Defense, Defense, Defense...

Portland’s defense had more holes than Swiss cheese in the first half. Things got better in the second. Harden is already fantastic when generating points for himself. Generating for others makes him a deity. Against Portland he was unstoppable. The Blazers had to shade Harden with an extra defender at every point, but it never mattered because he either found Wood or scored for himself.

This game showed that Portland has the potential to be at least an average team defensively. Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. were supposed help on that end. It finally happened in the second half. Jones impressed while taking on arguably the hardest assignment in the NBA in Harden. Covington was valuable off the ball. If Nurkic ever truly gets back into game shape, this team can be alright on defense; they just have to put together a consistent effort for 48 minutes.

Lineup Change

In order to put together that consistent 48 minutes, changes have to be made. One is becoming clear: Melo and Enes Kanter should not be on the floor together. Both were dreadful on defense. Anthony’s offensive struggles only compounded the problems Portland faced. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the Anthony-Kanter frontcourt was outscored 25-14 in the first half. Portland was plus one otherwise.

The Blazers can’t afford to have those two guys on the floor at the same time. Terry Stotts has some work to do in figuring out the rotation. Portland can’t just bank on Jones having a great defensive game and McCollum scoring 44 every night. Depth is critical to their chances. If Anthony and Kanter can’t provide it, then Stotts has to look elsewhere. If the pair isn’t benched, but staggering them somehow is a must.

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The Blazers will travel to Los Angeles on Monday to take on the Lakers. Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m. PT.