With Damian Lillard wearing street clothes for at least the next week, that meant opportunity for the taking for Shaedon Sharpe, who earned the first start of his young but already auspicious NBA career. And what better environment for it to come - the Rockets are one of the youngest teams in the NBA, don’t play a lot of defense and will happily reciprocate the speedy, half-court sets be damned pace the Blazers want to cruise at.
Sharpe was indeed a highlight machine, acquitting himself well with 14 points in 29 minutes, but the stars of the night were Jusuf Nurkic (27 points 15 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Anfernee Simons (30 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds).
With the dub, Portland improves to 5-1 heading into a four day break.
Sharpe didn’t waste any time making his presence known, scoring the first basket of the game on a buttery smooth 14-foot pull-up, and then minutes later throwing down a massive tomahawk jam on a fast break. The team knew what the rowdy weekend crowd wanted to see and delivered it to them early.
Transition offense in general was very much in Portland’s favor, as Houston did just about everything they could to play directly into the Blazers’ hands. The Rockets coughed the ball up five times, shot the ball miserably (38%) and offered little physical resistance to Portland’s bigs, who feasted on Houston’s undersized front line. Nurkic and Drew Eubanks combined for 16 points on perfect 8-8 shooting while probably punching at least a couple weight classes above the much leaner Alperen Sengun and rookie Jabari Smith. The two were like a weak straw in an all dairy milkshake. Once the Blazers recognized the mismatch, they rode it for the rest of the period.
Portland held a 32-23 lead after one.
As it turned out, the first quarter was only the trailer for the Shaedon Sharpe Show, and the second was the feature presentation. Sharpe checked back into the game and electrified the crowd with back-to-back SportsCenter Top 10, poster hanging on the wall, sure future TV promo clip dunks - one, a another high-flying tomahawk in traffic after Jerami Grant found him on a a nice cut, and the second, a two-handed alley-oop from Keon Johnson after a circus-like steal and save under the basket.
With all eyes now fixated on Sharpe, Houston seemed to forget who was 1A on their scouting report. The quarter soon belonged to Simons, who caught another heater, this time exploding for 17 of his 23 first half points behind scorching hot outside shooting. He had 7(!) threes in the half and probably felt a little bit disrespected he was allowed to get so many attempts in the first place.
The Blazers rode Simons’ hot hand and built an 18-point lead at 66-48. Everything just seemed to be coming up Milhouse. When the Rockets called a timeout with 3:06 left, it looked like Portland would be taking care of business early against a weaker opponent, but instead the opposite happened. Houston came back energized, battened down the hatches and ended the quarter on a 10-3 run to remain in striking distance. Portland took a 69-58 lead into the break.
Portland continued to find success with what worked for them early - dumping the ball down low to Nurkic and letting him “Hulk Smash” his way to victory. It wasn’t exactly the cleanest or prettiest option, but Simons suddenly had gone ice cold and the Blazers needed more than anything to make sure this game didn’t become competitive. It didn’t blow the roof off of the building, but feeding the Beast was a steady enough strategy to keep the Rockets an arm’s length away.
Portland took a slight edge in the third and held a 96-82 lead heading into the final frame.
The Blazers yet again built a 16-point lead early in the fourth, but just could not put the Rockets away. Credit to the Houston youngsters, who refused to give up and stayed tenacious from wire-to-wire. Nurkic continued to be focal point of Portland’s offense, scoring 9 of the team’s first 11 points through the first half of the period. From there, both teams had to scrap to make headway, and time was on the Blazers’ side. Some timely buckets from Grant in the final minutes allowed the team to exhale, and then a one-handed dunk by Nurkic with 3:13 remaining gave them a 13-point 118-105 lead. From there, Houston just about waved the white flag.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon from Dave Deckard!
The Blazers will get a breather, with their next game not coming until Wednesday when the Memphis Grizzlies come to town. Tip is set for 7 p.m. Pacific.