This was a showdown of franchises at different stages of existence. The Blazers: playoff hopefuls, looking to maximize the the talent of their star. The Rockets: staring down the barrel of a youth movement, paying their best player to ride the pines while youngsters feel their way through forming a basketball identity. Houston doesn’t win much - they’ve only done so once so far this season - so Portland needed this one in the bag merely to save face.
Damian Lillard was the high scorer for the Blazers with 20 points, but the most impressive performance easily came from Nassir Little, who finished with a double-double of 13 points and 14 rebounds to go along with 2 assists, 2 steals, a block and a number of highlights.
The Blazers struggled to match the early energy level of the Rockets, which is often the case when facing an opponent fielding multiple rookies in its starting lineup. You just can’t buy that type of optimism. Houston doesn’t always “run offense” as much as they hustle and improvise. Portland looked the patient old-timers, methodically working the pick-and-roll and half-court game while the Rockets played the part of caffeine-infused schoolchildren out at recess. Houston was just a little faster, a little longer and a little more tenacious, and to their credit, outplayed the Blazer starters for most of the opening period by rebounding and forcing turnovers.
The winds of change happened after Portland turned to their bench, unleashing their own form of juvenile exuberance in Little. His presence at both ends seemed to jump start the Blazers, whether it was forcing turnovers, creating opportunities in transition or knocking down the outside shot. Little had 7 points in the quarter. Along with Cody Zeller, who chipped in 8 himself, Little helped Portland finish on a 13-2 run to take a 30-27 lead after one.
Things continued to go the Blazers’ way as Lillard and CJ McCollum started getting more settled into the game. Neither had to go into full attack-mode. A stepback here, a pull-up three there was enough to keep a lead building while the Rockets made things easy on them with questionable shot selection and horrendous outside shooting. Credit to Portland’s defense - they forced Houston into the shots they were okay with them taking. “You’re not going to make enough of these to beat us.” They were right.
Little continued his mini renaissance, tossing in another four points in the quarter, and Portland did just enough to take a double-digit advantage into the break, leading 55-45.
If the Blazers would have shot the ball well, this would have been a blowout. Portland didn’t make a lot of shots, but they made big ones. Houston started putting their heads down and getting to the basket, climbing back to within just five points on multiple occasions, but each time the Rockets made a run, it was extinguished by a momentum-swinging three. Two of those came from Robert Covington, and then Lillard canned back-to-back daggers near the end of the quarter to dash any hopes of a upset.
Then this happened:
Welcome to the NBA, Alperen Sengun.
When the dust (and bodies) settled, Portland would take a comfortable 81-67 lead into the final frame.
The Blazers flirted with disaster for the final 12 minutes, failing to put the game away, instead inviting Houston to dream of a second victory. Luckily for Portland, the Rockets seemed to have little interest in seizing it. The teams played hot potato with the outcome until the Rockets said, “Psst, you you guys know you’re supposed to win this one, right?” Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic forced themselves to the foul line and were able to restore order from the charity stripe. Crisis averted.
Stay tuned for the extended analysis coming soon.
The Blazers will wrap up the four game road trip against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday evening at 5 pm Pacific.