Damian Lillard scored a franchise- and career-high 71 points on Sunday evening as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets 131-114. The game was a tour de force for Lillard, who hit 22-38 from the field, 13-22 from the three-point arc, and 14-14 from the free throw line. He added 6 assists and 6 rebounds besides.
Lillard’s teammates did not abandon him, at least on offense. Portland shot 54.5% from the field against the hapless Rockets, 51.3% from distance on the way to a convincing win. It was exactly the kind of morale-boosting rally the 29-31 Blazers needed after a dispiriting, short-handed loss to the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night.
The Grand Dame
Damian Lillard stuffed an entire game into the first half of this one. He shot 13-19, 8-11 from the arc for 41 points...all before halftime.
Make no mistake, the Blazers needed it too. They hit 11 shots beside him as a team while allowing Houston 25 field goals in the half. Portland’s defense was, charitably, horrible. But Lillard propelled the Blazers to 73 points and a 15-point edge at halftime solely because he rocked toast.
As the second half started, the Rockets tried to deny the ball to Dame. They pressed him hard when he caught it. It worked well enough; he wasn’t scoring at the same rate. But to do this, they had to sacrifice literally every other aspect of their defense, leaving Lillard’s teammates so wide open that nobody could possibly miss.
Even nursing a 20-point lead, the Blazers managed to bobble it away when Lillard sat. But with the Rockets within single digits, Head Coach Chauncey Billups inserted Dame back into the lineup. He hit threes, dished assists, and then threw down a monster jam on Jabari Smith midway through the fourth, ensuring that the Rockets would get no closer.
Mostly due to Lillard, either shooting directly or passing when the Rockets crowded him, the Blazers had a fantastic night at the three-point arc. They finished the game 20-39.
The Rockets, meanwhile, did not. They shot 7-26.
That tells you almost everything you need to know about the non-Lillard trends in this game, except for...
Two Halves Inside
The Blazers accomplished a pretty significant turnaround at the half in this game. In the first two periods, their interior defense resembled a half-ply paper towel in a swimming pool. Houston drove with impunity, drawing fouls or converting layups. When they missed, they destroyed the Blazers on the offensive glass. The Rockets also succeeded in the post, albeit not as directly. They did baste the Blazers’ biscuits when they caught with their back to the basket, but Portland—aware of the height disparity across their front line—tried to counter by fronting the post. They succeeded in preventing easy passes inside, but having to stick to the top side of larger guys prevented the Blazers’ forwards and centers from rotating to help.
The cumulative result was a near-disaster. Houston had 40 points in the paint at halftime.
Portland abandoned the fronting in the third quarter. Drew Eubanks threw it into a different gear at the rim while Lillard and Jerami Grant went berserk outside trying to keep dribblers from getting past them. Throw in a little zone defense and Houston managed only 12 paint points in the third period. With the threes not falling, that was enough to create insurmountable separation on the scoreboard.
Portland gave it all back at the start of the fourth, getting crushed in the zone, but at least we saw a spark of inside “D”. Houston finished with 74 points in the paint.
Three more than Lillard.
And that, my friends, is why the Blazers won.
The Blazers continue a busy week, heading south to face the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.