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Portland Trail Blazers 103, Houston Rockets 108: Wild finish after an up & down day

On a day that began with news that Kevin McHale had been fired, there was no telling how the Rockets would respond against the Blazers after a string of disappointing outcomes. Turns out, not very well at all.

At least in the first half.

The ball moved crisply, James Harden wasn’t pounding the ball at the top of the key as much, and the defense seemed more alive.  But the shots still weren’t falling.  The Rockets shot 6 of 18 from the field in the first quarter and only 3 of 21 in the second, where they managed just 13 points total.

Things weren’t much different in the third quarter, either.  The ball was still moving, but it didn’t lead to good shots.  It mostly just deflected around the perimeter.  And I said it last season and I’ll say it again, the Rockets have got to lead the league in missed layups.  I know a lot of them are James Harden careening into the paint looking for contact, but look at all those X’s!


And that was just the second quarter!

Then the fourth quarter came and something finally changed for the Rockets.  James Harden caught fire, finally, and the defense held Portland to 4 of 18 shooting in the final frame. Corey Brewer, a handicap for most of his minutes so far this season, brought the energy and pace that regularly accompanied him last season.  I really liked the lineup with Harden at the point, Trevor Ariza and Brewer flanking him, with Terrence Jones and Clint Capela or Dwight Howard in the post.  They can all run like deer and it forces Harden to guard, which he does well when on the ball.

I don’t normally advocate more touches for Dwight, but it felt like he could back down and get that left-handed bunny hook any time he wanted it against whichever Plumlee brother was trying to guard him last night.  He’ll crack a backboard or two with some of those touches, but when the big man is pulling down 19 boards and causing Blazers’ players to toss the ball over the backboard whilst trying to shoot over him, the big man deserves more than five shots.

All the frenetic energy Houston played with in the fourth was almost for not though, because with just under a minute to play and the Rockets down five after a made Harden free throw, the Beard knocked the inbound pass straight to Corey Brewer who, you guessed it, missed a lay-in at the rim. Probably the easiest shot of the night and he banged it off the glass. Terrence Jones fouled C.J. McCollum on the other end in a scramble and that felt like all she wrote.

But McCollum missed one of his free throws and James Harden sank a no-doubter in mid-transition.  Ariza almost stole the ball on the other end, but fell out of bounds before he could control it.  On the inbounds, the pass went to Brother Plumlee and Bill Worrell was furious Houston didn’t foul straight away (Plumlee is a 47% FT shooter).  But I would like to disagree with Mr. Worrell: with 30 seconds left in a three point game, you don’t put anyone on the line, even a poor shooter.  Trust your defense.

That’s just what the Rockets did, and it paid off.  Al-Farouq Aminu (Rockets killer) missed a wide open corner three, then Portland and Houston traded fouls and made all their free throws, leaving just 6 seconds on the clock and Rockets’ ball with no timeouts.  Harden took the inbounds pass and sprinted up court, expecting another foul.  Plumlee faked like he was going to right as Harden rose up to try and draw a three-shot foul, but Plumlee pulled back at the last second leaving Harden mid-air at mid-court.

He somehow spotted Corey Brewer in time to get him the ball with two seconds left and Brewer didn’t even need a full step before sinking a “cold-blooded” running one-footer from thirty feet.  If that was the karma balancing itself out after all of those terrible misses and rimmed-out layups, it was worth it.

Brewer (16) and Ariza (18) were the only Rockets’ players in double digits besides Harden. Harden finished with a quiet 45 points to go with 11 assists, 8 rebounds and 5 steals.  He’s still not shooting well and, amid rumors that he came into camp with poor conditioning, may just now be playing himself into shape.  But with three 40 point games already this season, and a line of 29-6-6, at least the production is still there.

After such an exciting win, it’s easy to forget that a good man lost his job just 12 hours prior. I’ve long thought that Kevin McHale is a great presence in the locker room, but probably isn’t the guy you want with the clipboard at the end of a close game.  He’s had some miscues at the end of games and with balancing minutes (remember the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic seesaw?), and starting Hack-A-Shaq on DeAndre Jordan knowing he has Dwight Howard on the floor in the playoffs last season was borderline unforgivable.

McHale is a beloved figure and a basketball icon, but the truth is a big part of his role was getting the most out of Dwight Howard. And Howard, for better or worse, is very much already the player he is going to be.  So if the team wasn’t performing to expectations and he’s not much of an influence on Dwight, a change had to be made.  It’s sad, but as they say, that’s the business.

Either way, it was big win for Houston against a foe that regularly gives the Rockets trouble. Like Corey Brewer said in his post-game interview, hopefully this one will wake everybody up.


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