It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at the standings (or Forrest’s game preview) to know that tonight’s game was one of the most important of the season so far. Portland are the most serious challengers for the 8th seed the Rockets currently occupy, and in addition are 2-0 up in the season series. To keep the Blazers at bay and their chances of splitting the tie-breaker alive, it was critical that they get the W tonight. For the Rockets, Delfino returned to active duty after missing a game with an injured left elbow. It sounds as though it’s an issue that will continue to dog Delfino throughout the rest of the season – this may lead to him missing the occasional game in future. The Trailblazers came in with Batum nursing a bruised wrist, but otherwise their regulars were all healthy (a few fringe players – Sasha Pavlovic and Ronny Price – are out for them).Game Recap:The first quarter was at times reminiscent of the Golden State game. The threes were falling from the outset, with the Rockets going 5-9 from behind the arc. Unfortunately, they were struggling at the other end and allowing Portland to hang around. Patterson and later Aldrich tried mightily to contain Aldridge without the help of a double team (which seemed to be a conscious coaching decision to start out), but he’s very tough to defend in single coverage. A combination of post isolations for Aldridge and penetrations from Lillard allowed the Blazers to stay in touch despite the Rockets’ hot shooting, and the quarter ended 34-28.The Rockets have generally been very fortunate with injuries so far this season, but they sustained one early in this game as Douglas had to leave with a left hip pointer. It remains to be seen how long that will keep him out for, but he took no further part in this one. Fortunately, the front office had signed Beverley for just such an occasion, and he was able to jump in in his place without too much disruption. However, they were also beset by some foul trouble to make things a little more awkward. Aldrich continues to get the nod over Smith (and I though he played pretty well in his early time on the court), but the one thing he couldn’t do was stay on the floor – three quick fouls sent him back to the bench.After a dry spell to start the second quarter, the Rockets were forced to bring Harden back in early. Stotts countered by putting Claver on him, who Harden just abused. On consecutive possessions, he pulled him back and forth before finding Parsons on a backdoor cut, then he shook him for a short jumper, before finally dishing to Parsons for a three. Cue timeout Blazers and a change of strategy. Often matchup advantages look exploitable on paper but are harder to do in practice, so it was nice to see one actually pay off for once.Lillard, though, decided he was going to exploit a matchup of his own, scoring on three straight possessions against Patrick Beverley and forcing a timeout in the other direction. To my eye Beverley didn’t do too much wrong, but Lillard was feeling it and hitting shots. There was some nice penetration to the lane, a pull-up three and jumper on which he got fouled. Lillard has already shown he’s capable of taking over the game late in the first two matchups, and seemed to be picking up where he left off here. I’m continually impressed with this kid.Hot shooting was the order of the day – particularly the amazing efficiency of Harden who did not miss in the first half (20 points on 8-8 shooting). As a team Houston went 64.9%, a season high. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned Lillard outbursts and the unnervingly consistent play of Aldridge (at times it feels like he never misses on his midrange post-up moves, it’s amazing to watch), the gap would have been bigger than the 62-53 edge the Rockets took into the locker room at half time.The Rockets continued to have to live with Aldridge making shots from everywhere in the third quarter, but they were able to weather the storm thanks to an oustanding quarter by Patrick Patterson. 2Pat went 6-7 for 12 points, showcasing his offensive versatility. There was a spectacular put-back off a rare Harden miss, mid-range jumpers and easy finishes around the rim. When he’s playing well, it really rounds out the offense and the team is hard to beat. The Rockets were able to stretch the lead to 95-80 after three quarters and never looked back. For once there was never a time when it felt like Portland could get back into the game. Part of that is that Harden is on a roll at the moment (despite missing the occasional shot in the second half he still finished with 35 points on just 16 shots) and is able to make a bucket whenever necessary. But it also speaks of how much the team has grown over the last couple of months that they maintained their composure and didn’t let the Blazers make a run. When all was told the Rockets led from wire to wire en route to a comfortable 118-103 victory. Always helps when you’re able to shoot 60% from the floor for the game, of course.Random observations:
- The Rockets came out of the gate with a bang. Harden set up at the three point line and Asik came to set a screen. As JJ Hickson showed on the pick and roll, Harden swung the ball across the top to Lin and Asik rolled to the hoop. The pass went across Hickson and caused him to hesitate, and in the mean time Asik was left wide open under the basket for an easy dunk. It was a very pretty play and looked pretty embarrassing for Hickson. Nice to see the coaching staff are cooking up a few quick hitters!
- What I like about Beverley is that, unlike some of the previous call-ups we’ve seen (Courtney Fortson springs to mind), he is very proactive on the court and always looks to affect the game. He popped up in hustle play after hustle play tonight, whether it was recovering his own errant pass before dishing to Morris for a three or tipping a long rebound to himself to set up a fast break, or coming over to block a shot attempt from JJ Hickson after a foul to prevent a possible and-1 opportunity.
- Every now and then, Patterson gets a matchup he likes on the perimeter and is able to put the ball on the floor a bit. Provided he’s matched up with a big man, it’s something I’d like to see him do a bit more – he’s usually very aggressive and tends to be able to exploit his footspeed to get to the hole against slower opponents. There was a nice move in the third quarter tonight where he drove past Hickson then stopped on a dime, allowing his defender to fly past before finishing with the lay-in.
- It’s interesting how McHale will either give all the backup centre minutes to Aldrich or to Smith rather than splitting them between the two. My guess is that he feels that it’s better to have one centre playing and getting into rhythm than giving spot minutes to two different players and losing time while they adjust to the game. It looked like he might have to break this rule at one point tonight when Aldrich went to the bench with foul trouble in the second, but instead McHale went back to Asik. I was worried that the extra minutes might tire him out, but in the end it worked out OK.
- LaMarcus Aldridge is rapidly evolving into one of my favourite players to watch. I alluded to it in my game rundown, but he deserves his own bullet point. His jumper is just so freakishly consistent that it feels inevitable that he will score whenever he catches the ball in the post. He dominates not through physical prowess (though he is able to back his way down into the paint when he wants to), but through shooting skills sharpened to perfection. It doesn’t matter who is guarding him or where he is on the court, you know if he squares himself he’ll get off that smooth jumper and it’ll hit nothing but net. It’s not quite as distinctive as the Dirk one-legged fadeaway, but it is every bit as effective. Portland fans must love to have him on their team.
- Once the game was decided the Rockets emptied the bench, but it was not your every day lineup that saw the floor. Motiejunas is an intriguing prospect for the future, but I never thought I’d see him playing the 3! Here he did so out of necessity, as part of a Beverley/Anderson/Motiejunas/Aldrich/Smith group. It was garbage time, so not worth reading too much into it, but it did seem to sort of work – Motiejunas provided a modicum of spacing and Beverley was able to exploit that space to find Smith rolling to the hoop a couple of times.