The Portland Trail Blazers gutted out another win in the NBA restart on Tuesday night, defeating the Houston Rockets 110-102 to pull within 1.5 games of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Despite an uneven performance, the Blazers were clutch down the stretch, and took advantage of a poor shooting night from the small-ball Rockets. Carmelo Anthony’s three-pointer with less than a minute remaining sealed the deal in a back-and-forth battle.
The game was hardly the offensive slugfest many anticipated. Damian Lillard paced Portland with 21 points on the night, but was just 6-19 from the field. James Harden led all scorers with 23, but was plagued by foul trouble and limited to 33 minutes of action. Both players were held well under their season scoring averages
The Rockets, as they are wont to do, immediately came out gunning from distance. Despite a number of favorable looks, they weren’t able to connect, and Portland settled into an early lead with a well balanced offensive attack. The score evened out by the midway point, and the Blazers began to focus their offense more heavily in the paint to take advantage of a considerable size advantage.
Defensively, the Blazers zeroed in on Harden, and the other Rockets weren’t able to step up in his stead. Gary Trent Jr. caught fire off the bench for Portland in the closing minutes, helping the team to a 29-24 lead at the break.
The Rockets went ice cold to start the frame, while the Blazers kept their collective foot on the gas to increase their lead. The advantage reached 13 by the six-minute mark, as Houston struggled to find an offensive rhythm and deal with Portland’s height. Even after the Rockets started to knock down shots, the Blazers stayed aggressive and had no trouble attacking the rim on the other end, all while staying red-hot from downtown.
Portland cooled in the final minutes, allowing Houston to pull within five after Harden connected on a full-court pass to Ben McLemore, who sunk a buzzer-beater to make the score 61-56 at halftime. The Blazers out-rebounded the Rockets 37-15 over the first 24 minutes of action, while shooting just shy of 44% from three-point land.
The two teams traded baskets for much of the period. Harden picked up his fourth personal foul at the eight-minute mark, and his fifth at the five minute mark—sending him to the bench and testing Houston’s depth. The Rockets’ offense mostly floundered without him, and while the Blazers offense went stagnant, they were still able to take an 86-80 lead into the game’s final stanza.
The Rockets pulled the game to an even 88-88 count by the nine-minute mark, ratcheting up the defensive pressure and taking advantage of Portland’s inefficiencies on both ends of the floor. Jusuf Nurkic picked up his fifth personal with 7:20 remaining, but remained in the game. The Blazers finally strung together a few buckets, but a pair of open three-pointers from Jeff Green—who finished with 22 points off the bench— kept Houston within range.
The last few minutes featured playoff-caliber intensity. Neither team led by more than one possession before Anthony’s huge triple with just under a minute remaining to put the Blazers up five. Houston was unable to respond, and Portland held on for the 110-102 victory.
While all’s well that end’s well, the Blazers left much to be desired in the second half. The offense was clicking in the first two quarters, with excellent ball movement and balanced scoring across the board. After the intermission, however, their play mostly dissolved into one-on-one action—with meager results. CJ McCollum finished 8-18 for 20 points, but Anthony was just 5-14 shooting and Nurkic 6-15, in addition to Lillard’s struggles.
Defensively, Portland yielded far too many quality looks on the perimeter, but Houston was simply unable to knockdown open looks for much of the night. To their credit, Blazers were able to string together enough stops down the stretch to hold on for the win.
Despite a 64-39 rebounding advantage for the Blazers, including 15 offensive rebounds, they weren’t able to connect on many second chance opportunities. Portland missed a number of point-blank layups and were unable to fully take advantage of their significant size differential in the paint.
The biggest contributor for the Blazers came off of their bench. Bubble hero Gary Trent Jr., scored 17 on 5-11 shooting, including a stellar 4-9 mark from three. More importantly, every one of his buckets seemed to come right when the team needed a big shot, none bigger than his clutch, tie-breaking triple in the final minutes. Trent also chipped in his customary hard-nosed defense, including on both Westbrook and Harden to add to the duo’s struggles.
Failure to Launch
To put it frankly, the Rockets just weren’t very good in this one. Foul trouble rendered Harden from ever getting into a zone. Russell Westbrook had an awful shooting night, going 5-14 from the field with 15 points and an eye-popping 5-12 performance from the free-throw line. Nobody else outside of Green and Danuel House Jr. were able to get much of anything going.
Houston relies on their three-point shooting like no other team league, and tonight they were just 19-53 (36%) from distance. They also pride themselves on turnover differential and while they were +2 in that department, the Blazers generally took care of the rock, and only had 12 giveaways on the game—not enough to make a significant difference.
Portland faces a familiar foe in Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, with tip-off scheduled for 5 p.m. PT.