The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets entered their game on Friday night with fractured lineups, mediocre records, lowered expectations, and a ton of young players eager for action. As it turned out, that was a recipe for a wild and crazy game, closer to a demolition derby than polished basketball. When the teams couldn’t be great, they settled for playing fast. That yielded a bevy of hammer dunks, quick threes, and momentum-changing turnovers. The Wile E. Coyote versus Tasmanian Devil affair generally trended Portland’s way, but their lead was never huge, and seldom safe. Houston kept running, dunking, and praying, cutting Portland’s lead close in the fourth period, before succumbing to the triumphant Blazers 125-110.
Anfernee Simons scored 27 in the frantic affair, shooting 11-17 in the process. Jusuf Nurkic added 25 with 13 rebounds. CJ McCollum scored 26. The Blazers shot 56.8% from the field, Houston 48.1%. The game featured a combined 30 turnovers, just as indicative of the tenor of play as all the scoring.
The Blazers began the game as they should: getting past the exterior layer of Houston’s fragile defense, right into the gooey center. Jusuf Nurkic backed down in the post while the guards penetrated for pull-ups or fouls. On the other end they over-committed to make sure the Rockets couldn’t do the same. Houston shot threes with the success rate of a school of drunken jellyfish. All Portland had to do was control the lane defensively and they’d be ok. Sending 3-4 defenders into the paint against dribblers showed that they knew it too,
It worked pretty well. At the halfway mark of the first, the Blazers had held the Rockets to just a dozen points. That was the good news. The bad news: though they were shooting 50% from the field, Portland wasn’t generating enough attempts to make a difference. They had 4 turnovers, no offensive rebounds...if anything their offense resembled Houston’s, albeit with better distance shooting. That played out on the scoreboard; the Blazers had but 12 points as well.
At that point Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons woke up, driving, dishing, injecting life into the attack. They stopped trying to milk Nurkic’s size advantage, instead using speed and scoring ability. They generated almost as many points in the next 3 minutes as they had in the first 6.
This should have spurred Portland to a streak-away lead. They certainly threatened it. But once Nurkic sat, the interior defense went to seed. Houston found a groove, penetrating for layups and whistles. They stayed close for a minute. But the Blazers picked exactly that moment to hit a bevy of threes, finally giving them the separation they needed. Portland led 32-20 after one.
Houston continued to score inside as the second period commenced, but Portland’s offense was off the tether and running loose. All the shots they weren’t getting early in the first period came flowing like a torrent in the second. Houston had a hard time coping. Even though they shot a higher percentage, they just didn’t have the horses to keep up with that level of production. Their offense unfolded slowly, while Portland’s devil-may-care shots sailed over their heads. With one team playing chess and the other ultimate frisbee, the Blazers had little trouble maintaining their lead.
The Rockets went on a mini-run just before the midpoint of the period, hitting a couple of threes. That brought pep to their step. They started shooting quicker without losing their effectiveness. But Portland was already on that pace and feeling comfortable. CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Norman Powell took turns carving them up. Portland’s shooting percentage skyrocketed above 60% and the lead neared 20.
Houston flailed around trying to shut off the lane, leaving three-point shooters open. Portland feasted beyond the arc, then scored inside as well. They busted the game wide open, hitting almost everything they threw up. Houston made a brief run late in the half. Anfernee Simons picked up his fourth foul with 2:30 remaining. Those were about the only things that marred the period. The Blazers took a 66-53 lead into the half.
The Rockets came out of the locker room showing that they had learned at least some of the lessons from the first half. They ran like the wind, taking it deep inside against a Portland defense that remained on break. Portland took the jab, then returned the favor by going back to Nurkic in the restricted area, where Houston had no answer. It wasn’t as effective as their scoring tornado in the second period, but with a double-digit lead in hand, all the Blazers had to do was keep pace.
Neither team could hit a three to save their soul through most of the period, which actually saved Portland’s bacon. The Rockets continued to play fast and attack hard, throwing down dunks that looked like they were changing the game. But Portland’s dribble drives also yielded points, albeit of the more pedestrian variety. Two-pointers balanced two-pointers, and Houston’s best blitz in the middle minutes of the frame still only narrowed the lead to 7-8 points.
Eventually, though, the cracks started to slow. The Rockets edged closer, a bit at a time, going a little quicker and a little more aggressively to the lane than Portland. A trickle of paint points became a river, then a flood. When the third period horn sounded, Portland’s lead was down to 6, 91-85.
The fourth period started with a glut of turnovers, wild shots, and very little scoring. When the Blazers couldn’t defend the lane, they settled for disrupting the passing lanes. Houston kept trying to run and pass past Portland’s outstretched arms. Miscues helped Portland’s cause, but to be fair, Houston also got plenty of easy shots.
When everything else was running relatively equally, ability to hit threes made the difference. Simons hit a pair early, changing what easily could have been a 4-point lead into 10 in a blink. That complemented Nurkic’s play inside, stretching Houston’s defense farther than they could bear. But suddenly Jalen Green and Christian Wood hit deep, and the lead was back to 6 with 5:30 remaining,
Once again, though, McCollum and Simons came alive, bailing out their team with sweet shooting when all else failed them. As much as Houston scored, the margin stayed near 10. The young Rockets kept their cool as the clock became more demanding, but they just couldn’t stop Portland’s guards. Stretching out the defense to pressure dribblers just led to more openings for Blazers shooters. Up 10 with 1:12 remaining, the Blazers found Nurkic all but alone against a pressing Houston “D”. He dunked and got the ensuing and-one, sealing the victory and sending the Rockets home disappointed.
Stay tuned for extended analysis coming soon!
The Blazers face the always-tough Chicago Bulls on Sunday at 1:30 PM. Pacific.