Tonight makes two consecutive road wins in places that are traditionally pits of despair for the Rockets (despite being lovely cities). We can be grateful for any sort of win we might grab in either Denver or Portland, despite Denver being mostly injured and Portland being out of sorts because they lost to OKC.
When the Rockets came out to start the game tonight they were assuredly not out of sorts. The first team moved the ball well, and Scola was stroking shots, not missing anything in the first half. The first quarter was up and down, with Portland (seemingly for the first time in years) pushing the pace of the game. The Rockets shot well, Portland shot well, and between them both teams put up 58 points in the first, with the Rockets leading by 2, 30-28.
In the second quarter McHale went to the bench, and the bench proved too much for Portland. The second team was just amazing, moving the ball well, playing great D, hustling constantly. The Rockets shot the lights out in the half at 60%, but I contend that it isn't that hard for an NBA team to do that, given open shots and easy shots. The Rockets worked the ball so well that there were lots of open and easy shots, especially when you have shooters like Budinger and Lee. We saw the best version of Jordan Hill thus far in the first half. He rebounded like a maniac, played good D on LaMarcus Aldridge and even notched 3 assists.
The Rockets lead by 14 at the half. They shot exactly one free throw, a Patterson +1. The refs seemed determined to make up the OKC loss to Portland in the half, with what was an entirely bizarre series of calls. To put it in perspective, Samuel Dalembert was whistled for two fewer fouls than the entire Blazer team at the half. Be that as it may, hot shooting and solid D cover a multitude of whistles.
Then the second half started and Nate McMillan made a good case for being a top five NBA coach. This isn't a joke. When he first started out in Portland I thought he lacked imagination, that he was basically a "Johnny One Note" coach. Not so. He's adapted his play style to his personnel, and he makes changes on D quite well. The Rockets spent a half simply burning Portland on picks and destroying them with wide open corner threes. But McMillan decided to pressure the ball, and also noted that the refs were letting Portland play rugby in the first half, so the Blazers swiped at the ball like NFL linebackers.
The Trailblazers came out literally swinging in the second half, pressuring the ball and generally shoving the Rockets around. New Rocket nemesis Nicolas Batum started making threes, and they put him on our PGs, and began trapping at midcourt. While half began well, the Blazer tactics took their toll, and the first unit, which had played Portland to a standstill in the first quarter, gave up ground in the 3rd. Portland forced the Rockets PGs into 10(!) turnovers tonight, and the Rocket lead dwindled to 7 by the end of the 3rd quarter.
The Rocket Doomsayer Brigade must have enjoyed the 3rd and beginning of the 4th quarters, because it confirmed their fondest fears. The Rockets were flustered, and Portland put in its tall athletic "all around player" unit for the 4th. This unit was Jamal Crawford, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, Gerald Wallace and Aldridge. Portland switched defensive assignment on every Rocket pick, (except for Aldridge). This, too, flustered the Rockets, and by early in the quarter the Blazers had tied the game.
While it is disappointing to lose a lead that was 17, it's useful to realize that most things regress to the mean. The Rockets built their first half lead on 60% shooting. That faded as the Blazers surged. The second half saw good Blazer execution and defense, a truly astonishing number of offensive foul calls on the Rockets, and plenty of Rocket mistakes. The gap inexorably closed.
Then something worse than a Blazer comeback happened. Kyle Lowry hurt his right elbow and took himself out of the game immediately. Anyone who knows how tough Lowry has been in the past knows that isn't a good sign. No more is known at present, so let's all hope KLow is going to be just fine. Soon. If there's one utterly crucial Rocket, it's probably Lowry.
The fourth quarter featured the best and worst of Kevin McHale, Rockets Coach. The best was that after Lowry went out ,the Rockets went to the second unit, plus Parsons, with Patterson guarding Aldridge at center. This worked, and despite some mistakes by Goran Dragic, the Rockets clawed their way to a lead of 8. But the fourth dragged on seemingly endlessly, and a Trailblazer win loomed. Despite all the looming, the Rockets held their 8pt lead until Bad McHale appeared in a puff of Celtic Green colored smoke and ordered Luis Scola to play center. Again. Yes, again.
The expected happened immediately, with Scola giving up two fouls and four points in less than a minute as the mobile Blazer bigs headed straight for the rack on him. But Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee would not be denied, with clutch shots and smart play characterizing their contributions. That, along with some nice Dragic drives, and the Rockets held their lead in the face of what must be the slowest, most grueling game extension plan in the league, courtesy of McMillan. (I'm serious, someone should time it. It's brutally endless, and endlessly brutal.)
Sadly for the Trailblazers, and the NBA in general, there was no Brandon Roy to make every shot, no matter how improbable, against the Rockets down the stretch. Despite some dismal free throw shooting, the Rockets eventually prevailed 103-96 as the Trailblazer comeback fell short.
I'm glad it'll be a long time before I have to endure another McMillan "fouls and threes" experience again. Great road win for the Rockets. On to Phoenix tomorrow night.
See things in that uniquely Portland way at Blazersedge. You really should, read the good recaps and then check out the comments. It appears nearly every team truly needs to "blow it up and start fresh". I thought Portland was pretty good myself, but if you read the comments they're apparently doomed. Doomed.
- Chase Budinger - 22pts, 4rb, 2ast in 29 minutes. He crucially made his FTs in the dismal endgame McMillan always inflicts on Rockets wins against Portland.
- Rockets Bench - played great D, scored 64 points, 4 more points than Portland's starters.
- Luis Scola. Aldridge or Wallace will always be a bad matchup for him. He's found his shot again, adding 12pts on 6-8 shooting. It's not his fault McHale puts him at center. Maybe it's his fault for agreeing to do it, though.
- Lowry's Injury.
- Martin's continued cold streak. Fortunately we have a 1B SG in Courtney Lee.
- 1 FT in a half of basketball.
- The Blazers flop more than the floppiest of Rockets, and that's downright immoral. Batum apparently is trying to emulate his departed bestie, Rudy Fernandez. Dealing with the two of them in three nights is tedious, though Batum is actually a good player, unlike Fernandez.
A few notes - brought to you by Bullet Points, The Lazy Man's Friend (tm)
- Only three teams in the Western Conference have more wins than the Rockets. (Once the Clippers play the same number of games as everyone else it might be two.) Perhaps, just maybe, the Rockets are actually a good team? Perhaps, just maybe, the bench depth of the Rockets is a decided advantage this season? The Rockets simply aren't going to be bad enough to take their own lottery pick, barring an injury fiesta. So let's all root for the Knicks to pick 6th and for the Rockets to kick ass, ok?
- Let's hope Lowry isn't badly hurt. It'll make Jeremy Lin and Linsanity that much more painful. But of course, if Lin was doing the same in Houston no one, and I mean no one, would say a word nationally. Some of the Linsanity is Lin, some is the fact that the PG can just go berserk in Mike D'Antoni's system.
- If the Rockets ever are dominating a team they hate and just want to show their contempt, I have the answer. Run everything on offense through Samuel Dalembert. It'll be hilarious, and will work just enough to make the opponent weep bitter tears of rage. ( Only indicated for leads of 30 or more.)
- I've never understood what the fascination is regarding Jamal Crawford. He seems like a player who takes as many points off the board as he puts on it, plus he's a black hole most of the time.