The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Houston Rockets without Jerami Grant on Saturday, one of the Big 3 players who have buoyed them all season. Grant’s back spasms didn’t cost the Blazers much, as the 9-19 Rockets currently field a Big 0. The game started fast-paced and sloppy, allowing Houston a puncher’s chance. But a pristine third period for Portland was enough to put away the Rockets 107-95
Damian Lillard scored 25 points in the game, adding 10 assists in the process, but Anfernee Simons led the Blazers with 32 on 11-21 shooting, 5-12 from the arc.
The Blazers started the game in atypical fashion, pushing the pace in an attempt to run the Rockets out of the gym. Easy shots made the scoreboard ring. Those buckets also collapsed the defense, which left the Blazers space for three pointers. You know that thing when you hear the Undertaker’s music hit and you already know how this is going to go? The first four minutes of the game were exactly like that. Portland led 13-5 just after the 8:00 mark in the first.
When the Rockets started running back, the Blazers were a bit slow. Houston gave as good as they got for a while. But the Rockets still couldn’t defend Portland anywhere. If they weren’t on the run, the Blazers drove and/or hesitated and got fouled, making hay at the foul line.
Not defending Portland is a non-viable strategy. The Blazers were on track for a 40-point period midway through the period.
The scoring ground to a halt in the second part of the initial period, however. Both teams started shooting threes like short order cooks working in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Things were happening fast, but the quality left something to be desired. Portland turnovers and Houston offensive rebounds conspired to nerf the Blazers’ initial advantage. Stalwart scoring by Anfernee Simons and Damian Lillard kept the flow going, but it was a mess.
The Blazers led after one, but only 33-27 instead of the 40-22 lead they seemed to be angling for early.
Scoring remained sparse for Portland at the start of the second. The Blazers threw the ball to Jusuf Nurkic on multiple possessions, engaging him in a one-on-everybody duel with the entire Rockets squad. This was occasioned by Houston plastering Portland’s defense with multiple attempts within two feet. Lane scoring allowed the Rockets to crawl all the way back in the game.
That lasted right up to the point that Nurkic absorbed an almost-flagrant elbow on a rebounding attempt with 6:36 remaining and left the game holding his jaw. Somehow Drew Eubanks and Keon Johnson couldn’t make up the offensive difference. Damian Lillard started coming alive, setting up teammates with passes and hitting a three. But the game still seemed to be a stops-and-starts affair, almost as if both teams were sparring, waiting to open up in earnest. Play was fairly fast, sloppy, and vaguely frustrating.
Simons resurged late in the half, keying an 8-2 run that left the Blazers ahead 57-51 at the half.
The opening of the third quarter belonged to Portland without question. They visited an old friend: the three-pointer. Simons and Nurkic each hit one, Lillard two. The lead went from 6 to 13 within five minutes of play. Houston just didn’t have enough octane in their offense to keep up with that kind of production. When they tried to reply anywhere but the lane, Portland’s interchangeable switching defense was enough to keep their looks tough. The Rockets did get a couple shots inside, either conversions or free throws off of fouls.
When Trendon Watford hit a three with 4:22 remaining, the Blazers were up by 17 and it just wasn’t fair. Portland’s inside scoring became easier at that point too. Houston doesn’t defend well under normal circumstances, let alone when they’re spread across the floor. Drew Eubanks added a little pep to Portland’s defense as Nurkic rested. Damian Lillard dished assists. It was one of the more well-rounded periods the Blazers have played this season.
Portland doubled up Houston 28-14 in the third, leaving themselves an 85-65 cushion heading into the final period.
The Blazers only needed to hold for a few minutes of the fourth in order to salt away the victory. Anfernee Simons and Keon Johnson—who got plenty of minutes tonight—provided plenty of seasoning. Simons hit three shots, including a triple. Johnson added two more buckets inside. With Houston shooting threes like Lasik candidates, the home team catching up was all but impossible. Houston made a 12-2 run at the end, no doubt making Head Coach Chauncey Billups get a little heartburn. He put the starters back in. Lillard promptly hit a three off of a Nurkic assist, and that was ballgame. Again.
Stay tuned for our extended analysis of the game coming soon!
Portland has a night to travel before facing the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night in the first game of a baseball-series back-to-back. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:00 PM, Pacific.