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Bench Leads Trail Blazers Past Rockets for First Road Win of the Year

Houston met their match in Portland’s reserve unit.

Portland Trail Blazers v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Houston Rockets tonight 104-92. The victory was Portland’s first on the road this season, a distinction they’re no doubt glad to put behind them. Besides that, the celebration will be somewhat muted. Facing Houston is like playing a video game in Tutorial Mode. If you lose, there’s probably something wrong with you.

If you missed the action, you can find the quarter by quarter recap here. Beyond that, here are a few things to draw from the victory.

Second Unit Shines

Portland’s starters came out flat at the outset of the game. The young Rockets led for much of the first quarter. When the Blazers need heroes this season, they look to the bench. Nassir Little came into the game and promptly hit a three-pointer, coupled with aggressive defense. Cody Zeller replaced a foul-intensive Jusuf Nurkic, set huge screens, and converted on dives to the bucket. The increase in buy-in alone was evident. Their energy took the Blazers from a deficit to a 30-27 lead at the end of one. Once the Blazers had the lead, they weren’t going to give it back...as hard as the starters tried sometimes.

Outhustled

The Rockets were nowhere near as talented and experienced as the Blazers, but they sure looked younger and quicker for most of the game. They made hay in the paint, beat Portland to loose balls, and even turned the tide in offensive rebounds...a huge Blazers strength this season. If they didn’t literally airball every third three-pointer they attempted, Houston might have given the Blazers trouble. Portland continues to play like they can turn on the winning attitude any time they wish, without the World Championship pedigree or actual number of wins that usually accompany that approach.

Guards in Tandem?

Portland’s version of, “If a tree falls in a forest...” right now is, “If a team has two incredible starting guards, but they don’t actually play well at the same time, do they actually have two incredible starting guards?”

Damian Lillard played 37 minutes tonight, CJ McCollum 39. Dame scored 20, CJ 17. To the lasting relief of Blazers fans, Lillard looked decent and helped key a 14-2 run in the third quarter that put the game away. He also shot a respectable 4-9 from distance. But McCollum shrank beside him, devolving into isolation attempts off of too many dribbles. That’s his natural mode, but there’s a difference between tight CJ dribble moves to set up an unstoppable shot or a pass against the collapsing defense and CJ dribbling three times as long, hitting a defender at every turn, finishing with a worse look than he had initially.

Whatever you thought of their ultimate suitability together, once upon a time the Lillard-McCollum chemistry was everyday like the sun rising. Early returns in 2021-22 suggest that it might have been an artifact of Terry Stotts’ offensive system, which was set up to ensure just that. It’s too early to draw conclusions, but the question is starting to percolate.

A Little Bit

We keep mentioning him, but he keeps topping himself. Nassir Little had himself a GAME tonight with 13 points on 6-10 shooting, 14 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block. All of that came with aggressive one-on-one defense and a penchant for helping teammates as well. It’s impossible to explain how countercultural Little looks right now: confident, energetic, and (considering his experience) competent pretty much every moment he’s on the floor. Wow.

Snellebration?

Head Coach Chauncey Billups featured Tony Snell with the second unit, getting one of Portland’s underrated subs some run. Or, well, he tried to. Snell hit a three, but he also had 5 fouls in his first 9 minutes. He may need a little more run before the rust comes off.

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The Blazers will face the Denver Nuggets in the Mile High City on Sunday at 5:00 PM, Pacific.