Just by looking at game trends, the Portland Trail Blazers’ 107-95 victory over the Houston Rockets last night might appear like an easy-going exercise for Portland against one of the weaker teams in the Western Conference. After all, Portland led by as many as 22 points in the third quarter and never let Houston get within single-digits again.
But don’t get it twisted.
Last night was an ugly, physical — did I say “ugly?” — game for Portland on the road, one that players are likely still feeling sore from today.
“They play fast, they play aggressive and they crash the glass, so anytime you got a team running in there, I mean look at my lip,” Lillard said in the locker room postgame, motioning to his face. “My lip [is] busted.”
A young, confrontational Houston team punched Portland in the mouth last night literally and metaphorically. Lillard wasn’t the only victim. Trendon Watford, who got down and dirty for two charge calls, took a blow to the face. Of course, Jusuf Nurkic, who attracts elbows to the face like a magnet, got smacked three different times, a lofty number even for his standards. One of those elbows resulted in a technical foul on Houston center Alperen Sengun.
Second-year pro Jalen Green hounded Damian Lillard on defense and after some stops, felt vigorous enough to bark in the all-time great’s face. Late in the third quarter, Lillard burst to the bucket for one of his only two two-point baskets, but tweaked his ankle after landing on a Houston player’s foot underneath the hoop. He came up hobbled and rightfully fuming at the baseline official for not giving him a whistle. Through the physicality, Lillard still shook off some struggles to finish with a solid 25 points on 7-20 shooting (5-13 from deep), but he had to earn it.
Then there were the rebounding woes. Portland got bullied on the glass in the first half, giving up eight offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone. The Blazers would lose the rebound battle 51-36 (18-10 offensive) and help Houston cash in 29 second-chance points. Drew Eubanks endured his roughest night as a Blazer, his lack of size at 6’10 catching up with him as Houston’s big men demoralized him in the first half. Sengun and others forced him into loose ball fouls when they weren’t prying rebounds out of his hands.
“The only area that they really beat us up on was the glass and we knew that that would be a problem coming into the game,” head coach Chauncey Billups said postgame. “And man, it was a problem.”
With Portland’s third star, Jerami Grant, out with back spasms, the Blazers offense sputtered and stalled. Lillard and Anfernee Simons had to carry the load with a heavy dose of three-pointers (they accounted for 10 of Portland’s 13 total) and a bench unit that has lacked firepower all season responded poorly to more reliance (22 points total).
After getting blasted by the Dallas Mavericks the night before, the Blazers led 57-51 at halftime and it seemed Portland might be in for a frustrating second consecutive loss. Then, slowly but surely, Portland increased its lead to 13 at the midway point in the third quarter. By the dying moments of the period, the scoreboard showed Portland up by 22 with the game presumably in hand.
Just like the tone of the game, Portland didn’t extend the lead with a flurry of beautiful offense, but rather a methodical churning of the gears. The Blazers tightened up on the glass and the defensive end. The Rockets only grabbed two offensive rebounds in the third and could no longer bail out their horrible three-point shooting (3-29 for the game). The Blazers forced five turnovers and held Houston to 14 points on 4-15 shooting during the decisive stretch, while everybody chipped in just enough on offense to double Houston’s point total with 28 for the quarter.
“We had to make some adjustments, but we did what he had to do to tighten up to get the game won,” Lillard said. “... We were able to create some separation with our defense and another good win.”
Coach Billups agreed.
“I’m pleased with the win. We responded,” he said. “I thought defensively we were really good all night, very competitive, pretty physical.”
With a 20-point lead as insurance, Billups pulled the starters midway through the fourth quarter. Adding to the unsightliness of the evening, Portland’s young bench let the Rockets back into the game, the lead dwindling to as little as 11 with two minutes left to play. So back in came the starters for one more minute, needing an additional Lillard three-pointer to put the game to bed.
“We’re turning it over, we’re getting bad shots, we’re not playing the right way,” Billups said about the lapse. “I wasn’t gonna let that happen. … Just a teachable moment for us.”
Simons was the best player on the floor for either team, scoring a game-high 32 points on 11-21 shooting in the win. It was a bounce-back game after he scored just seven points in Dallas, but Billups was more impressed with the shooting guard’s defensive presence.
“He was locked in, he was physical, he was talking out there, I just thought it was his best effort defensively,” Billups said. “I’m more proud of that than him responding and getting 32 points because I think he can do that most nights if he gets the shots.”
While Simons had the best game of any Blazer, Lillard still came away with the game ball after he made history in the first quarter with a nifty and-1 in the lane. On the bucket, Lillard became just the eighth active player in the NBA to reach 18,000 career points. The milestone also came on a night where Lillard passed Jamal Crawford for eighth all-time in three-pointers made. The accolades are pouring in for Lillard, who sits just 21 points away from the Blazers’ all-time scoring record.
After the game, several questions from media focused on Lillard’s 18,000 point accomplishment, with Lillard expressing gratitude for all who helped him get there: trainers, teammates and a procession line of coaches throughout his career.
Lillard’s current coach couldn’t say enough about the moment.
“It’s just a testament to all the hard work and dedication that he puts in and the belief,” Billups said. “This is a guy who rarely misses games. If he misses a game, it’s because he’s actually injured. You have to have that type of commitment and dedication to be able to go get these type of numbers every night when you know all they’re talking about is stopping you. It’s an incredible feat.”
An ugly, ugly game, will be remembered by a beautiful milestone.