For the third time during their four-game Summer League play, the Portland Trail Blazers dug themselves into a hole, trailing by double-figures after the opening quarter. For the third time, it also didn’t matter much. Channeling a mixture of unselfishness and grittiness the rest of the way, Portland was able to ride that momentum to a 85-77 victory over the Houston Rockets.
Over the four-game span, Portland has outscored opponents by a score of 96-54 in second quarters, and they shook those jitters off quickly again tonight. The box score showed only one double-digit scorer — Keon Johnson led the way with 25 points on a pristine 8-of-13 shooting — but nine different players scored six or more in the win. Below are a few quarter-for-quarter thoughts on the victory.
It’s difficult to decipher if it was because of the Rockets’ defensive personnel, a coaching focus, or merely a flow of the game, but the Trail Blazers looked especially intent on getting shot attempts right at the rim. Each of their first five shot attempts were inside the arc. Not that it necessarily mattered; because not many of those layups dropped, Portland once again found itself down double-figures early in the first quarter for the third time in their four Summer League games.
There were positives to be found, though. If you were making a list of “Things to Hope For” ahead of the summer exhibitions, seeing Greg Brown III make that jump as an imposing rim protector would’ve been somewhere along the top of that list. He brought his flyswatter to the BBQ tonight, with three blocks in his first six minutes — one of them so nice, he blocked it twice — and after he got his well-earned sub, the Blazers went to that zone defense again to try and keep the Rockets at bay.
Unfortunately, No. 3 pick Jabari Smith had other plans for the Blazers’ zone defense, and Portland could only muster a 4-of-18 shooting performance in the first quarter to offset it. Pair those two together, and you end up with a 28-14 deficit after one.
Second quarters have been kind to this year’s Summer League Blazers, and after a mini-takeover from Kyle Alexander, it appeared the fourth time would continue setting that pattern. Heading into tonight, Portland had outscored Summer League opponents by a 74-41 margin(!), and they opened here with an 8-0 run.
It didn’t seem to matter whom either team put on the floor when it came to consistently putting the ball in the net, but thanks to Alexander’s pick-and-roll exploits, Jabari Walker’s predictable grit, and some teamwork from that Ross-Randall-Louzada grouping, Portland forced the Rockets to go half a quarter without a score.
The big question now: could the starters keep the wheels greased on that run? Incredibly enough, the Blazers missed 26-of-37 from the field in the first half, but thanks to a timely heat-up from Keon Johnson, along with production on both ends from Brown III and Watford, Portland was able to remain competitive, trailing just 41-36 after two.
It’s very possible that Steve Hetzel had Rocky playing at halftime. Coming out of the locker room, the Blazers had a tangible edge to their game, attacking passing lanes, and aggressively (and unselfishly) taking to the rim for scores.
In what was perhaps most inspiring, it was a five-player effort, anchored by the inside-out game of Luka Garza. As always, the second unit helped to continue that energy. That nightly Jabari Walker highlight you asked for? Here’s one that stood out:
Ironically enough, turnovers were a bit of a saving grace for the Rockets. NBATV ran a graphic midway through the third that showed that Houston had earned a 23-2 edge in points off turnovers. Even with only a single double-digit scorer (at this point in time), and their No. 3 scorer in Brandon Williams held without a field goal, the Blazers were able to run off a 27-13 third quarter advantage, guiding them to a 63-54 lead heading into the fourth.
As expected, the Rockets were able to make a slight push with Aric Holman and Tari Eason making plays to keep Houston within striking distance. A combination of missed free throws, costly turnovers and high-energy plays from Houston set them up with just a four-point deficit with under five minutes to play.
Each game, there’s always a distinguishable trait from one of the long-term Blazers players that stands out. In this quarter, perhaps it was Williams’ confidence that stood out. At one point of this game, Williams was 0-of-6 with six turnovers, but his ability to remain confident and get to his spots stood out. With Portland clinging to a slight lead, he had a dribble pull-up and a few smart passes that helped keep the edge.
It wasn’t a pretty shooting night from him, though, thankfully, he had teammates, namely Keon Johnson, who were able to rise to the occasion for clutch shots when the Blazers needed them most.
Johnson, whose 14.7 points in the Summer League were among the Top 50 and No. 1 on the Blazers, hit a timely corner 3-pointer to stretch the lead to nine, and the Blazers were able to throw together a few more highlights and keep their lead, on the way to a comfortable win and a 3-1 record.
The Blazers — one of five teams to be 3-1 — were able to crack the top four, and will be in contention to make the Summer League Championship series, though a game or opponent is yet to be decided, since there are notable games on tomorrow’s slate.