The Portland Trail Blazers did it again. After a couple of reassuring leads in the first half the Rockets decided to invite the Trail Blazers back into the game. Nicolas Batum, who finished with a career high 35 points (5-8 from deep), was the first of several thorns in the Rockets side and lead a resurgence late in the third quarter that put Portland neck and neck with Houston. The Rockets failed to convert when it counted in overtime and lost the game 119 to 117. LaMarcus Aldridge had 29 points and Damian Lillard, who was Portland's finisher, ended with 27. Between the end of the fourth quarter and the beginning of overtime, Damian Lillard had 11 straight points. I'll risk oversimplifying in saying that at the end of the game Portland's best players were just better. There were also some LeBron-like shooting streaks involved. James Harden (29 points, 6 assists, 3 steals), Jeremy Lin (11 points, 11 assists), Chandler Parsons (19 points, 11 rebounds) and Omer Asik (16 points, 16 rebounds) all had great games.
Nicolas Batum (aka The Lengthy Frenchman) made tonight's match up a lot less fun than it could have been. The consecutive shots from deep that gave Portland their foothold and the blocks in transition ruined what could have been a just revenge.
Damian Lillard stepped up enormously for Portland when they needed that knock out punch at the end of regulation and in overtime. This kid is the real freaking deal and an absolute show stopper. This summer I was under the impression that things were looking bleak in Portland's future but this future all-star is going to move mountains. If Portland can weave a stronger defense together they'll boast a solid young team.
What's not to love about Omer Asik? This guy has been the most consistant Rocket this season with elite defense and rebounding. The way he's grinding away attempting to refine his offensive repertoire is admirable. He's getting more comfortable in the pick and roll - Jeremy and Omer have generated some serious chemistry.
You guys, I'm starting to like Toney Douglas. Blasphemy, I know, but as long as he's not making too many decisions on offense he's a lot of fun and a damn good defender. He let me down in overtime, but it wasn't defensively where he was at fault. Say what you will about Sampson's decision to play Toney Douglas in OT over Jeremy Lin (who had a fantastic game as a playmaker) but I think it was the right decision. Damian Lillard lit Lin up late in the fourth and sent the game into overtime. An adjustment was needed.
The First Half
Quarters one through two were a blast. The Rockets stuck to the same scheme we've become familiar with the past week: lock down defense leading to easy buckets in transition. James Harden really took flight after Wesley Matthews picked up two quick fouls. Jeremy Lin and Harden had a combined 12 assists by the time the second half was over. The Trail Blazers could not stop the Rockets in transition. The offense was percolating. Houston shot 55% in the first half and everyone was getting involved. Things soured towards the end of the second quarter when Portland opened up an 8-0 run in the final few minutes of the second quarter. The Rockets have some serious problems closing quarters.
The Second Half
The third quarter started out okay. Omer Asik was able to get to the line and James Harden had a three point play the old fashioned way. The Rockets set out to pressure Damian Lillard and initially it was a huge success.
And then Nicolas Batum heated up from deep in the third quarter to ignite a 14-2 Blazers run. Batum, who had 28 at the end of the third, could not be denied at the arc.
By the fourth quarter, the lead had started to bounce between the Blazers and Rockets with regularity. Marcus Morris was able to push the lead at the nine minute mark with some hustle on a missed shot followed by one of his new and improved contested three pointer makes.
LaMarcus Aldridge got his jump shot off against any defender, any time. Omer was often fully extended in LMA's face and the shot was still dropping; there's not a lot you can do about that. The game entered dangerous territory again when Batum was subbed back and immediately picked up where he left off; somehow, the Rockets were able to answer each and every time.
Turnovers played an important role in restoring sanity to the game in the fourth quarter. After a couple of disconnects from Portland on drives and a floater from Toney Douglas, Houston's lead had grown to six. Chandler Parsons hit a deep three pointer at the end of the shot clock to put the lead back at six. Wow, can this kid step up or what?
It was a three point game in Houston's favor with four minutes left following a pair of free throws earned from a D-Lill-drive. Harden was able to draw a foul while Kelvin Sampson tinkered with the point guard rotation subbing Lin and Douglas in interchangeably as defense and offense were needed.
At the two minute mark, the mood was tense. Portland matched every point that Houston was able to put on the board with a renewed vigor. Parsons bobbled an open drive. Myers Leonard tied game at the line 105 to 105. Harden had his pocket picked by Matthews (likely a foul) on the next possession and Lin grabbed Lillard for what probably should have been a clear path violation. An enraged Harden shot up the court on the following posession and stuffed a three pointer right down Portland's throat to take the lead. A couple of offensive fouls from both teams gave Portland the ball back with 54 seconds. Damian Lillard converted a clutch layup after blowing by Parsons. Omer Asik's layup on the other end: blocked. Portland was up 109 to 108.
The Blazers put their trust in rookie guard Damian Lillard and he hit a contested pull up jump shot on Lin to put his team up by three. Timeout was called. Marcus Morris took the floor and stepped up once again with a huge three pointer (Morris finished 4-6 from deep) that sent the game into OT.
Coach Sampson decided to start Toney Douglas opting for man defense over playmaking at point guard. Harden got the first three points of OT on an and-one drive. Lillard erased the lead from downtown. Batum, who played the hero in the second half, decided not to take advantage of a couple of mismatches - Lillard did. Marcus Morris followed a huge offensive rebound with a turnover that gave LaMarcus Aldridge a chance to foul Asik out and it worked, somehow.
LaMarcus hit his free throws and on the next possession backed Patrick Patterson down and hit his jump shot. After Batum swiped a Harden drive into the stands, the Rockets were looking at a three point deficit. Morris had a chance to tie it up the game in the final few seconds from deep but the damn ball rattled off the front iron.
The Trail Blazers grabbed Harden in the scramble that followed and Harden went to the line for two shots with less than two seconds on the clock. After hitting the first, Harden and the Rockets schemed to grab a missed free throw but it failed. It was a heartbreaking loss.