This game wasn’t destined for much. Following the overtime thriller versus Golden State, which saw James Harden vanquish the Warriors’ fab four as if he were Spider-Man fighting off the Sinister Six, the Rockets’ (22-16) contest against the Portland Trail Blazers (23-17) wasn’t poised to grab headlines, especially considering the next one is against the conference leading Denver Nuggets on Monday.
If you consider the jubilant Thursday night as the high, this loss against the Blazers was an inevitable hangover. Without the dominant performance from Harden that we’ve become accustomed to over the past 12 games, the Rockets’ weaknesses from earlier in the season resurfaced: poorly timed turnovers, a lack of consistent shot creators and, perhaps most devastating, an inability to choral defensive rebounds.
The Beard did get his numbers however, finishing with a game-high 38 points (concluding his run of 40+ point games at five), to go along with four rebounds and seven assists. Austin Rivers kept the Rockets within striking distance in the first half as Harden struggled (3-15 in the first 24 minutes), and finished with a season high 21 points after logging an eye-popping 42 minutes.
While the away team failed to find consistency throughout the game, the Blazers were paced by a balanced attack, led by Jusuf Nurkic’s 25 points and 15 rebounds and CJ McCollum’s 24 points. Dame-Time was Dame Dime, as Damian Lillard adapted his game during a subpar shooting night and deferred to teammates throughout the contest, particularly down the stretch, finishing with 17 points and 12 assists.
The Rockets got off to an uneven start on the defensive end through the first six minutes, playing solid defense only for a missed boxout or two(or three or four) to give the Blazers second chance opportunities, setting the tone for the remainder of the contest.
Closing out possessions has been a reoccurring issue for the team, specifically when Clint Capela is forced to switch onto guards, leaving guys like Daniel House, Rivers and Harden to box out much bigger opponents. With the massive Nurkic and the lengthy Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers are specially equipped to make the Rockets pay for those kinds of mistakes, tallying 17 offensive rebounds on the night.
At half the Rockets were down 59-46, and outside of Rivers, had little success putting the ball in the basket. In the third quarter, Harden started cooking, shaking off the abysmal shooting in the first half by erupting for 20 points in the period to get the team within nine.
Though Harden’s volume of attempts on the night (13-35) looks like he forced it, the Blazers did a great job keeping the ball out of his hands throughout much of the first half. On a couple of possessions it seemed like Evan Turner was essentially face-guarding him, making it tough for him to get the ball back after an initial pass.
This strategy forced others to take the lead, and with Chris Paul and Eric Gordon out, that responsibility fell to guys like Rivers and guard Brandon Knight. The latter had some moments, getting to the rim and even hitting a step-back three in the first half, however in the second he was largely quiet.
In the fourth, both teams played to a stalemate as the game slowed to a slog. The Rockets got within striking distance a few times, but each run was halted by a timely shot by McCollum or an offensive rebound by Nurkic.
This game was ultimately lost on the backboards, as the Rockets repeatedly allowed Portland second-chance opportunities. Capela served as the only dependable inside presence, finishing with 13 points and 21 rebounds, but no Rocket outside of the center had more than five boards.
The team had cobbled together a respectable rebound percentage, in the top half of the league, over the past 12 games after a really tough start to the season, but the gang rebounding that was a staple of last year’s super switchy defense has largely been absent.
As stated in at the top, this game could certainly fall into the trap category, being sandwiched between a tussle with the defending champs and a matchup with the current best in the west. However, failing to take advantage of a team on a back-to-back is a tough pill to the swallow despite missing two of the team’s big guns.
The team’s next game is on Monday in Denver against the Nuggets.
- The Rockets had a higher field goal percentage at 46.4 and three-point percentage at 34.2 than the Blazers, with 45.7 percent and 32.1 percent. Gotta rebound man.
- Outside of Harden and Rivers, only Green, House and Knight made a three pointer, at one apiece.
- The Blazers had 27 assists to the Rockets 13.