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Game Day: Rockets at Blazers

Analysis and observations from Houston's 116-101 win over the Portland Trailblazers

  • Rockets vs. Blazers
    James Harden scores 33 points, Dwight Howard adds 29 as the Rockets beat the Trail Blazers 116-101.
  • Howard Alley-oop
    James Harden sets up the pick and roll with Dwight Howard.
  • Coast-to-coast
    Jeremy Lin grabs the rebound and goes coast-to-coast for the layup.
  • Tear Drop
    James Harden drives the paint and nails the tear drop.

PORTLAND - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s 116-101 win over the Trailblazers Tuesday night in Portland:

Post-game:

- Tonight’s game began with another rocky start for Houston as the club’s supersized lineup again struggled to find its footing. That’s not to say the Rockets’ bigs were subpar, however. On the contrary, both Howard and Asik played well for most, if not all, of the first half. Asik was terrific defending LaMarcus Aldridge right from the opening tip and Howard was simply outstanding on the offensive end as he absolutely had his way with pretty much anyone Portland threw his direction. Howard racked up 18 points and 8 rebounds in the first half alone, with his four turnovers serving as the only blight on his otherwise impeccable box score stats. He even sank six of his first eight free throws.

The opening eight minutes of the game, however, saw the Rockets commit too many turnovers and defensive lapses. Houston lost Damian Lillard twice during that stretch and he made them pay both times, draining a pair of triples. In fact, Lillard was masterful in the early going while sparking the Blazers to an early 6-point lead. But as has been the case so far for Portland at this early juncture of the season, the second Lillard took a breather Portland’s bench could not keep the club’s mojo flowing (scroll down to today’s preview section for a note on the team’s miserable net rating ((-16.2)) when Lillard is off the floor). The Rockets made the most of Lillard’s brief absence, turning that 6-point deficit on its head and grabbing a 6-point advantage of their own.

- The second quarter then saw the return of the stout defense the Rockets had demonstrated up until their unfortunate meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers last night. Houston closed out on shooters, made better rotations and allowed Howard and Asik to do what they do best: completely shut down the paint and protect the rim in ways few others can ever dream of doing.

- The happy result of that defensive intensity: Houston’s transition attack was allowed to flourish once more. Jeremy Lin in particular looked right at home pushing the pace and though his halftime numbers (5 points, 3 assists) didn’t leap off the page, his impact was certainly felt on the floor. And it wasn’t just a fast break thing, either: His alley-oop dish to Dwight Howard late in the second quarter was a thing of beauty – that’s the sort of synergy that should only improve as Lin, Harden and company continue to get used to playing with the freakishly athletic and dynamic Howard.

- One night after experiencing the despair that so often accompanies foul trouble to key players, the Rockets were able to bask in the bliss of living life on the other side. With more than 11 minutes left in the third quarter and Houston up 5, Portland starting center Robin Lopez picked up his fourth foul (yet another happy byproduct of Howard’s dominance: foul trouble for opponents is almost a given when he gets rolling like he was tonight), prompting an exceedingly early second half appearance for second-year center Meyers Leonard. Fewer than five minutes later, the Rockets’ lead had ballooned to 18. Does causation equal correlation here? You tell me. But it’s worth noting that the Blazers’ net rating has been even worse when Lopez (-9.9) sits this season than when Aldridge (-7.2) does.

- By the end of the third quarter, James Harden had 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field; nothing terribly exceptional about that, given Harden’s usual standard of efficient excellence. What most definitely did stand out, however: Harden was 4-of-4 from midrange. Pardon the hyperbole, but it sometimes seems Harden doesn’t take four shots from that part of the floor in a week, much less three quarters of a game.

- Can’t overstate just how good Asik was defending Aldridge tonight. He was – dare I say it? – Chuck Hayes-esque.

- Welcome back, Patrick Beverley. Tonight’s surprise participant delivered the goods in the fourth quarter at a most opportune time. With Houston’s 18-point lead having been trimmed to five, the perpetual sparkplug came through with a tip-in and a 3 to give his club breathing room once more. Prior to the game, Head Coach Kevin McHale expressed his desire to ease Beverley back in after he’d missed Houston’s last three games. I’m not sure if 28 minutes of action equates to “easing back in” but Beverley’s 12 points, four rebounds and boundless energy were a sight for sore eyes for a team that missed the unique qualities he brings to the floor every night.

- 20 turnovers tonight for Houston, 14 of them committed by Harden and Howard. Can't argue with a 4-1 record, but those miscues need to be cleaned up as the season progresses, especially when going against elite competition. But this was an issue for Houston last year, so not surprising that it would be a bugaboo early in the season thus far as well, especially given that the Rockets have several players who have historically been turnover prone. 

- NBA life sure is more enjoyable when superstars are on your side, isn’t it? Harden and Howard (62 combined points, 20 combined rebounds) just overwhelmed Portland tonight en route to helping Houston record a massive win that goes a long way toward erasing the sour taste left behind by the loss to the Clippers. Throw in the fact that this was the Rockets’ fourth game in five nights while the Blazers were fully rested and playing in front of their rowdy home fans and you have all the ingredients for an early season signature win. All teams have bad nights and ugly defeats. The key lies in how clubs respond to that adversity. The best teams find a way to bounce back. By moving to 4-1 and largely controlling the action from the second quarter on, the Rockets sent a message tonight.

Next up: a date against the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center and a rematch with the Clips Saturday night. Think those games will receive a wee bit of attention?

- Quote of the night comes courtesy of Omri Casspi, who was terrific off the bench once again, by the way, stuffing the stat sheet with 7 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Casspi on how the team feeds off of Patrick Beverley's defensive energy: "He's like that in practice, he's like that on the bus, he's like that on the plane. (Beverley says) ‘Let’s get better,’ every time I see him: This guy puts a big smile on my face just every time I see him out there. I'm so happy for him."

QUOTES

ROCKETS HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE

On the performance of the team tonight after a tough loss against the Clippers:

"We got in at 3 o'clock last night, had a tough one against the Clippers, and had a big win here tonight. The guys showed a lot of resilience, James [Harden] and Dwight [Howard] had tremendous games, I thought Omri [Casspi] had a tremendous game off the bench, Patrick [Beverley] gave us a big lift, so everybody played well. It was really, you know, the guys that were out there did a nice job."

On the defensive performance making a difference in the game:

"If we get stops, we get on a run and if we get on a run, we're pretty effective and that's kind of the key to our game is consecutive stops and run outs."

On the defensive confidence gained throughout the game:

"I think you could feel us getting some defensive confidence and getting that defensive engine revved up. Then, the guys really started believing it and you could sense it coming. Again, it was our first time we've been beaten this year, we were beaten by the Clippers last night pretty good, and I wanted to see how they responded. It was a huge response by the guys. That really showed me a lot. When you do that, it shows you've got character."

On the solidity of the rotation thus far in the season:

"We're getting it closer. I mean, I don't think your rotation is ever perfect because fouls happen, people sprain ankles and that stuff. So, in a perfect world, you would say I'm going to do this, this and this, but that's now how it works."

PATRICK BEVERLEY

On forcing turnovers tonight and its importance:

"It was a big part. They have a great team and a great guard in Damian Lillard. So, it was big for us to come out there and force the issue defensively and we did that today and were successful."

On feeling a change in pace in the second quarter:

"For sure. Like I've been saying since the beginning of the year, with us it's defense. We're set in stone that we know that we can score the ball, everyone in the NBA knows we can score the ball. It's up to us to focus in defensively. Once we do that, the sky is the limit for this team."

On his comeback performance after overcoming injury:

"I just try to go and help my team. You know, I'm a definite team guy. So, I was happy I didn't feel any pain today and I was able to make some plays and make some defensive stops. It felt good being out there with them again."

OMRI CASSPI

On his performance and contribution to a bounce back win:

"It's really big because playing four and five nights early in the year, especially coming in here late, we got in here at 3:30 in the morning, and after that loss we had last night it's a big one for us. We're so happy because they played really well and we knew coming in today, we needed to step our game up and it's a great win and I'm so happy."

On limiting Lillard and Aldridge offensively:

"Just having Patrick [Beverley] back and Dwight [Howard] playing his minutes, last night he had a little bit of foul trouble, guarding and marking, they made everything tough for them. It's so hard to score on those guys. You know, Patrick [Beverley], you can't dribble next to him, he's just such a good defender. And Dwight [Howard] is the best defensive player in the league. So, those two guys together in the defensive end just anchor our defense."

On feeding off of Patrick Beverley's defensive energy:

"He's like that in practice, he's like that in the bus, he's like that on the plane. That guy is getting better every time I see him. This guy puts a big smile on my face just every time I see him out there I'm so happy for him."

Pre-game:

It’s rainy, there’s a chill in the air, the coffee is hot and the bike lanes are bountiful. Natural beauty spans as far as the eye can see. Mouth-watering breakfast spots litter the downtown landscape. In other words, it’s business as usual in Portland.

But that’s not really the sort of scene setting you’re here for, is it?

All right then, let’s get down to business. The good news: The Rockets don’t have to worry about letting last night’s lamentable loss in Los Angeles eat away at their minds for an extended period of time. The not so good news: An extra day off, regardless of any accompanying psychic tolls, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Tonight’s game against the Blazers puts Houston in the dreaded four-in-five-nights category – a historically unenviable spot for teams league-wide. And this evening’s mission is certainly made no easier by the fact that the Blazers have been sitting at home in Portland having not played a game since Saturday’s win over San Antonio. But hey, that’s life in the NBA. All teams must labor through tough stretches.

Obviously any discussion centered on slowing this particular Portland team begins with finding a way to mitigate the damage done by All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and the rapidly ascendant Damien Lillard. Aldridge is a fully-blossomed big man who is a handful both in the low-post and while playing pick-and-pop with Lillard and the Blazers’ other perimeter players. Typically, forcing opponents to settle for long 2s is an optimal strategy. Aldridge, however, has basically entered Dirk Nowitzki “Master of the Midrange” territory. Take a look at his shot chart so far from the first three games of the nascent NBA season:

Though these are early days and the sample size is small, that chart is largely indicative of what Aldridge is capable of doing just about every night. Some of those numbers will come down of course, but others are bound to go way up, too – that 0-of-6 mark from the left elbow, for instance: Aldridge nailed better than 44 percent of his shots from that area last season. All told, the two-time All-Star hit more than 49 percent of his shots from 10-15 feet last year and 41 percent of his shots from between 16-23 feet, according to hoopdata.com. Of course, none of this is breaking news to the Rockets – Aldridge averaged nearly 30 points and better than 10 rebounds per game while shooting 55.6 percent from the field against them during four meetings last season.

Houston figures to begin the game with 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard drawing the assignment of tracking Aldridge. But just as they did with Nowitzki last week, don’t be surprised to see the team throw Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Omri Casspi at Portland’s power forward from time to time as well.

As for Lillard, it won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the Rockets handled him reasonably well in their two wins over the Blazers last season while he performed much better during their two defeats. His splits in those four matchups: 14.5 points, 6.5 assists, 3 rebounds and 44 percent shooting per game in Houston’s victories; 23.5 points, 7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 51.5 percent shooting per game in Houston’s two losses – both of which came during the season’s first month and before the Rockets had added defensive demon Patrick Beverley to the roster. Beverley, of course, will miss his fourth straight game tonight due to injury (UPDATE: In a move that came as a bit of a surprise, Beverley was cleared to return to action off the bench tonight).

Lillard enters tonight’s contest red hot, averaging 25 points, 5 rebounds and better than 5 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc on a whopping eight attempts per game. His PER of 27.13 ranks 13th overall in the league. That said, it should be noted that Jeremy Lin more than held his own in the point guard matchup with Portland last year, especially when the games were played here in the City of Roses: Lin averaged 16.5 points, 9.5 assists, 5 rebounds and 52.4 percent shooting per game in those contests while averaging a plus/minus of +12. The Rockets will likely need similar productivity from Lin tonight.

A few more bits and baubles whilst reflecting upon last year’s meetings between these two teams and what they may or may not mean heading into tonight’s game:

- The Rockets will certainly find themselves hoping that a new campaign means the end of their rendezvous with the video game version of Nic Batum. The 6th-year forward transformed into one of the 5 best players on the planet anytime he saw a Houston jersey last season, stuffing the stat sheet with 25.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 3.3 blocks and 2.3 steals per contest, all while draining better than 59 percent of his shots from downtown. Batum is a very good player, but he looked like a Hall of Famer against the Rockets last season.

- James Harden undoubtedly will be looking for a bounce back performance following last night’s disappointing effort in LA and Portland should offer him an excellent opportunity to do just that. The Blazers enter tonight’s contest with the 28th-ranked defense in the league (in terms of defensive efficiency) and Houston’s All-Star shooting guard feasted on the Blazers’ porous D a year ago, averaging more than 30 points, 6 rebounds and exactly 7 assists per contest, while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from beyond the arc.

- Besides it’s lackluster defense, Portland’s other Achilles heel last year was its abject lack of a bench. And while the Blazers’ reserves figure to be improved this season, the early results show the team’s second unit is still far from a strength. Not a single member of Portland’s bench has a positive net rating (the differential between the team’s offensive and defensive rating when that player is on the floor) and the Blazers have hemorrhaged badly whenever Aldridge, Lillard and starting center Robin Lopez have been on the bench getting a breather. It will be imperative for Houston to maximize its opportunities during those stretches this evening.

Final thoughts:

- Another area of significant importance for Houston tonight: Getting off to a good start. In three of its four games so far this season, the Rockets have scuffled along early, with the lone exception being the Dallas game when Omer Asik picked up two fouls in the opening minute, forcing Houston to lean on its small-ball lineups right off the bat. Houston’s supersized lineup has had its moments but it’s still clearly trying to find some consistent footing. Given the fatigue factor potentially in play tonight and the always-raucous Portland crowd, the Rockets can’t afford to dig themselves another deep early hole.

- The Rockets ought to have an opportunity to inflict some serious damage on the offensive boards tonight. Portland comes in ranked 26th in the league in defensive rebound rate while Houston is No. 5 in offensive rebound rate. In a game that figures to have no shortage of points scored – the Rockets are second in the NBA in offensive efficiency; the Blazers are fourth – those extra possessions could help Houston get a leg up.

- Keep an eye on the turnover battle. The Blazers have been the second-best team in the league in terms of taking care of the ball so far while the Rockets rank 25th in terms of turnover rate.

- Lastly, a lesson on the impact of small sample sizes: Houston came into last night’s game against the Clippers boasting the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense. 137 points later, the Rockets slid all the way to 20th in terms of defensive efficiency.