For a stretch, it looked like the Portland Trail Blazers would be locked into a 48-minute dogfight against the Houston Rockets Saturday night on the road.
The Rockets were shooting from the arc like kindergartners, but pounding the offensive glass like behemoths in a physical, ugly game that saw the Blazers lead by only six at halftime. But in the third quarter, the Blazers tightened up, using a big defensive effort and enough offensive firepower to seize control of the game. The Blazers led by as much as 22 in the second half, eventually winning 107-95.
On a night without Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons carried the offense with 32 points and Damian Lillard pitched in 25 points and 10 assists.
If you missed the action, check out our quarter-by-quarter recap from Dave Deckard!
Now, here are six observations from the win.
Damian Lillard came into tonight 46 points away from passing Clyde Drexler on the Blazers’ all-time scoring list. A lofty point total for one game, but within reach for a premier scorer like Lillard. Would he go for broke against a bottom-dwelling Rockets team and deliver a signature performance to capture the record? No. After missing Portland’s first attempt from the field, it almost looked like Lillard was intentionally turning down some looks to emphasize he wasn’t going to sacrifice team ball in pursuit of individual glory. Rather, he emphasized setting up teammates and trying to get Anfernee Simons into a rhythm (a move that you’ll see paid off). Don’t get it wrong, Lillard still got shots up — his 20 field goal attempts trailed only Simons for the game — but they came more in the flow of the offense as opposed to recklessly gunning for 46. It led to a team-high 10 assists from Lillard, a number that probably should’ve been higher had Jusuf Nurkic and others finished better. As far as is own shooting, Lillard had an off-night, shooting 7-20 from the field. His stat line was buoyed by a 5-13 performance from behind the arc. So, no record in Houston. That moment will likely come Monday in Oklahoma City. All Dame needs is 21.
This game may have stayed close through its entirety if Houston had found its three-point shooting stroke. The Rockets were horrid from beyond the arc, shooting 1-17 in the first half and 3-29 for the game, good enough for 10.3%. Chauncey Billups probably wishes he could say it was all because of the Blazers defense, but in the first half Houston got countless open looks and couldn’t make Portland pay. It was clank-infested, grippingly putrid shooting that allowed Portland to go to halftime with a lead.
Get a Rebound!
For Houston, the silver lining of all those misses was it fed their best offensive weapon: second-chance points. The Blazers got hammered on the offensive boards, losing that battle 18-10 and getting outscored 29-13 in second-chance points. Everybody got in on the party. Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba had four offensive rebounds apiece, Tari Eason and Bruno Fernando each had three and the guards and forwards pitched in a few when they could. The issue was most glaring in the first half with the second unit in the game and the 6’10 Drew Eubanks at center. Houston got eight offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone. As Blazers statistical guru Cory Jez pointed out, the Rockets grabbed over 50% of the rebounds available off their own misses. It was infuriating to watch and Exhibit A in the lawsuit accusing the Blazers for having a lack of size at the center spot behind Nurkic. Eubanks, who plays harder than anybody and has enjoyed beautiful moments this season, had his roughest game of the season. He just got worked ragged on the glass in the first half and suffered some demoralizing moments. After Eubanks secured a defensive rebound late in the first quarter, Garuba ripped the ball right out of his hands with menace, leading to an easy two. Later in the second quarter, Sengun soared over his head for a physical tip-slam. It wasn’t the Shaq of Troutdale’s night.
Third Quarter Turnaround
The third quarter was the decisive stretch of the game, as the Blazers imposed their will on the haphazard Rockets. They did it with defense. Houston was still ice-cold from beyond the arc (0-4 in the third), but this time the open looks weren’t in abundance. Portland’s defense was much more stout in its rotations and held Houston to 4-15 shooting for just 14 points total. The Blazers forced five turnovers and probably most importantly, shored up the rebounding. After giving up 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, Portland gave up only two in the third quarter, both coming in the first two defensive possessions. Houston’s horrible shooting no longer had a saving grace. With the defense clamping down, Portland’s offense — living almost solely off a diet of Simons and Lillard — got enough relief from the “others” to blow the game open, outscoring Houston 28-14. Trendon Watford had a stretch of six straight points and Nurkic pitched in five. Yes, not ungodly amounts, but combined with the production from Portland’s star backcourt and Houston’s terrible shooting, the bonus points from the role players felt like backbreakers.
Life Without Grant, Bench Troubles
Speaking of the “others” and offense, outside of that third quarter boost and an efficient 12 points from Josh Hart, there weren’t too many positives. The Blazers offense runs on the power of its Big Three: Lillard, Simons and Grant. Without Grant, that reliance on the trio’s offensive talents became painstakingly clear. In the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the angel Clarence comes down to Earth to show George Bailey how terrible his hometown of Bedford Falls would be if he had never been born. Well consider this game Clarence’s display of how difficult life would be for the Portland offense had the Blazers never traded for Grant this offseason. This version of Potterville is a gray, familiar reality that relies heavily on three-pointers from Portland’s star backcourt and very few three-pointers from anybody else. Portland loses a lot of it’s offensive versatility and a thin bench unit is further exposed. Lillard and Simons accounted for 10 of Portland’s 13 threes on the night. Not a single other Blazer made a three-pointer until the second half. Justise Winslow, starting in Grant’s place, finished with only two points and missed some opportunities in close. Shaedon Sharpe, who sometimes provides a spark off the bench, shot 2-7 for 4 points in another underwhelming performance. When Portland led by over 20 and pulled the starters midway through the fourth, the bench couldn’t sustain the lead well enough to prevent the starters from momentarily coming back in.
The Simons Show
Last, but certainly not least, Anfernee Simons. On what might’ve been Lillard’s record-setting night, Simons was the offensive star who carried Portland to a victory. He started off hot, scoring 14 in the first quarter, eventually finishing with 20 for the half. He shot 11-21 from the field to finish with a game-high 32, getting it on an array of midrange looks and crafty paint finishes, along with 5-14 gunning from deep. The three-point shot from Lillard and Simons remains Portland’s most deadly offensive weapon and it burned Houston. Without Grant and after only scoring seven in a blowout loss Friday to Dallas, Simons picked up the offensive slack and performed like the best player on the court.
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.