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Houston Rockets 126, Trail Blazers 113 – Second verse, different from the first

The Houston Rockets took center stage on a national broadcast, scored over 70 points in the first half against a top-flight Western Conference rival, and were shooting a ridiculous percent from three point range. Everything was in place for another historic collapse to match Thursday’s debacle. The Portland Trail Blazers stormed back and even trimmed a 20+ point deficit to a mere 6. Unlike the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Blazers were unable to clamp down on the Rockets, and Houston scored a perfectly reasonable 55 points in the second half. The ghosts of that collapse may not have been fully exorcised, but the Rockets have a lot of good reasons to be proud.

The biggest plus was the return of Patrick Beverley, Houston’s starting point guard. While there’s a lively debate to be had whether Jeremy Lin or Patrick Beverley is the better player, Beverley is overall a better defender, and against players like Damian Lillard, that’s huge for Houston. Lillard still had a good night, scoring 24 points on 17 shots and dishing 5 dimes, but the damage could have been far worse. His return deepens Houston’s bench considerably, allows for more defensive and offensive options and brings back another shooter. Welcome back, Patrick. We missed you.

The other big story on the night was shooting. The Rockets did it a lot, did it well, and kept doing it the whole time. Patrick Beverley’s 3-8 shooting was one of the worse three point lines for the team, to put it in perspective. The Rockets hit 48.5% from deep, and moreover they were shooting open threes. The offense was clicking again and the Rockets were obviously enjoying themselves. If Houston can find this sort of zeal more often, many of their mental lapses and fatigue issues should shrink considerably. They may be inexperienced, but that condition won’t last forever.

On the other hand, the Blazers are a mess on defense, especially in the post. Dwight Howard had a field day, shooting 9-15, grabbing 12 boards and racking up 24 points. LaMarcus Aldridge, on the other hand, took 26 shots to score 27 points, narrowly avoiding the dreaded “more attempts than points” club (though his 20 rebounds were phenomenal). Robin Lopez was primarily in charge of guarding Howard in the post, and he was not ready for it. Dwight is both faster and stronger than Lopez, which is little insult to Robin, who’s doing a great job otherwise. The Blazers chose not to double Howard in the vast majority of circumstances, and Dwight made them pay repeatedly.

Of course, Chandler Parsons cannot be ignored. He scored a game-high 31 points, shot 12-19 from the field, knocked down 3 threes, grabbed 10 boards, racked up 7 assists, threw in 2 blocks for fun and only committed 1 turnover. The Blazers may be a poor defensive team, but that’s an amazing line against any roster. With Terrence Jones briefly sidelined, Parsons showed up big when he was needed most. The player development that everyone has been waiting for seems to be happening in fits and starts, and a few more games like this will turn data points into trends.

James Harden chipped in with a 7-15 line to the tune of 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. He also contributed 5 turnovers, but in a win that stings less. His defense seems to be picking up, and at least has more effort behind it if not more results. At one point he closed out on an open referee, so there’s still some room to grow. This may not have been a particularly good game from Harden, but the fact that 22, 6 and 5 represents a mediocre night says a lot about who he is as a player.

The Rockets are back, even though they never really left. With players returning from injury, January and early February will be a good time for the Rockets to get back to full strength before the inevitable trade out of left field. The game against the Thunder showed what happened when the wheels fall off and the threes stop falling. Tonight’s matchup with the Blazers showed what happens when the engine keeps chugging along. Houston may not have the best defense, or the most savvy players, or the deepest playbook, but they have talent. And sometimes talent counts.

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