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Game Day: Rockets at Blazers

Analysis and observations from Houston's 111-104 loss to Portland

PORTLAND - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s Thursday night matchup with the Portland Trailblazers:

POST-GAME

Houston’s All-Star pairing of Dwight Howard and James Harden was terrific. One month after torching the Blazers to the tune of a combined 62 points and 20 rebounds in a Rockets win, the duo racked up another 57 and 23 Thursday night.

The end result, however, wasn’t anywhere close to the same. LaMarcus Aldridge made sure of that.

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Portland’s ascending star went supernova against Houston while leading his club to a 111-104 victory. After starting the game 1-of-8 from the floor, Aldridge transformed into a superhuman, one-man wrecking crew, piling up 31 points and a career-high 25 rebounds to ensure the Blazers evened the season series with Houston at a game apiece.

The Rockets didn’t play poorly Thursday night; they dominated in the paint where they outscored Portland 66-36 and bucked their tendency to turn the ball over in bunches. But the way the Blazers are playing these days, “good” simply isn’t good enough. Portland began each of the final two quarters with sizable runs that generated double-digit leads, and though the Rockets rallied both times, they ultimately couldn’t come up with the stops necessary to steal away with a win.

The Blazers second-half tsunami saw them put up 68 points during the game’s final 24 minutes. And at the center of that storm stood Aldridge, laying waste to Houston’s defense with wave upon wave of awe-inspiring yet deadly jump shots from all over the floor. Wide-open or contested, facing up or fading away, Aldridge put on a Nowitzkian shooting exhibition, all while summoning enough energy to corral nearly half of his club’s rebounds as well.

In a game that featured no shortage of star power and superlative performances, the ‘L-Train’ railroaded them all. The Rockets were good. Aldridge was better. Some evenings all you can do is tip your cap and move on to the next challenge. This was one such night. 

OBSERVATIONS

- A matchup pitting the league’s two best offenses against each other? You’d have never suspected as much if tonight’s first half was your introduction to the Rockets and Blazers. The clubs combined to shoot 35 percent from the field and a cringe-worthy 14 percent (3-of-23) from beyond the arc. To be sure, those numbers were in part a byproduct of solid defense, but both teams left a bevy of bunnies and blown plays on the floor during a first half that was as tightly contested as expected, but far short on the kind of scoring we’ve come to anticipate from the league leaders in offensive efficiency.

Just a few of the gory numbers: Chandler Parsons, shooting nearly 52 percent for the season, went 1-of-8 from the floor. Hard as it is to believe in retrospect, Aldridge started 1-of-8 as well before hitting a pair of shots to close the half. And the absolutely scorching Wes Matthews suffered through a 2-of-7 half that included an 0-for-3 mark from deep.

- One of the bright spots on both ends of the floor: Dwight Howard was terrific en route to recording a double-double by halftime. In today’s preview (simply scroll down if you missed it) I mentioned Portland’s collective stinginess when it comes to defending the 3-point line. As a result, the Blazers are one of the few teams willing to take their chances playing Howard one-on-one without sending any help. The 7-time All-Star took advantage in the first half, making quick, decisive moves to the basket that translated into quality looks he converted at a high rate.

- The ugly first half might not fit some players’ preferred profiles, but it certainly suited Patrick Beverley to a T. Houston’s live wire leads all NBA point guards in offensive rebound rate and he put on a show in that regard during the opening two periods of play, collecting four of his seven rebounds on the offensive glass. Beverley finished the game with a career-high 11 rebounds, five of them coming on the offensive end.

- Also mentioned in today’s preview: the fact Portland boasts a net rating of +10.4 in the second half of games this season – the second-best mark in the NBA in that category. True to form, the Blazers ripped off a 16-5 run to start the third quarter, building a 10-point lead before the Rockets began to find their bearings and begin the rally and recovery phase.

- Not surprisingly, James Harden played a rather significant role in Houston’s ability to hang in the game when Portland’s offense found its groove. Harden has feasted on the Blazers’ defense ever since joining Houston – he’s averaged more than 30 points per game against Portland as a member of the Rockets – and his knack for getting to the rim, drawing fouls, and making plays out of the pick-and-roll helped to dull the Blazers’ momentum right around the time the Moda Center mojo was really starting to rise.

- It came as no surprise to see Aldridge eventually awake from his cold shooting slumber. What could not have been predicted, however, was the degree of damage Mt. Aldridge would inflict during the seemingly inevitable eruption. Aldridge exploded for 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the third period while grabbing nine boards as well. Heading to the final frame he’d already accrued 22 points and 19 rebounds. Related: Omer Asik watched tonight’s game from the bench while wearing a suit. Asik, if you’ll recall, played a huge role in Houston limiting Aldridge’s production when these two teams faced off last month.

- Have to mention Beverley once again, this time for his tremendous effort on the defensive end. Damian Lillard is a matchup nightmare, yet Beverley tirelessly shadowed him all over the floor and, as a result, the reigning Rookie of the Year had just eight points on 1-of-10 shooting by the end of the evening.

- Looking for reasons why tonight’s game turned out so much differently than last month’s? Make sure you start with the fact that Robin Lopez endured zero in the way of foul trouble until the final minutes tonight after being relegated to non-factor status throughout the November matchup while suffering through a veritable plague of fouls. Lopez delivered a double-double this evening, provided solid work while protecting the rim and formed a particularly problematic partnership with Nic Batum (the Blazers have cleverly dubbed that duo “Batum and Robin) that repeatedly tormented the Rockets on the defensive end.

- As good as Lopez was, however, Dwight Howard still came through with one of his best statistical performances of the season. Howard blew up with 32 points and 17 boards, and while those numbers will get overshadowed in light of Aldridge’s magnificence, don’t overlook the fact Howard has now averaged nearly 21 points and 17 rebounds over the course of the past five games.

- Offensive rebounds and the accompanying second-chance points conceded continue to continue to haunt Houston. The Blazers grabbed 30 percent of their misses – a soul-crushing number anytime, but especially so when going head-to-head with an elite offense that is far too potent to hand over so many second chance opportunities.

- In their two matchups vs. Portland so far, the Rockets are now 11-for-42 (26 percent) from 3. The Blazers, as advertised, most definitely defend the 3-point line with vigor and vigilance.

- The Rockets won’t have much time to lament tonight’s loss. They return to action in less than 24 hours to face another quality team and raucous crowd with the Warriors and Oracle Center awaiting them tomorrow night.

QUOTES

ROCKETS ASSISTANT COACH KELVIN SAMPSON

On Aldridge's performance tonight:

"He's a load, he's a load. I don't think I can remember seeing someone who takes so many hard, contested, foul-away jump shots and consistently makes them. He's really, really good. They don't really have an inside presence but Aldridge is almost like throwing it to a big center inside who plays on the block. He's as consistent with his contested jump shots as the big guys are scoring in the paint."

On the quality of Portland's shots tonight, especially Aldridge:

All of his shots were contested. We got mixed up on a couple coverages but made pretty good adjustments off that. They made tough shots and then they made some timely, timely three's. [James Harden] did a great job contesting, I think it was Dorell Wright, the corner in front of our bench on a huge possession. He missed it and it bounced right back to him and they wound up getting another three. Portland is obviously really, really good. They're really, really good in this gym. They're playing with a lot of confidence. We get to the fourth quarter and we get a chance to win, but, you know, we move on.

On the thought of double-teaming Aldridge more throughout the game:

"No, we were reading that. You have to pick your poison with this team. Giving up tough contested two's - or - they're a really good hockey-assist team. They keep that thing and spin it, and we were a little bit worried about the three. But when [Dwight Howard] got on him, I thought Dwight did a good job. We probably should have had Dwight on him a little bit more but [Terrance Jones], I thought, did a pretty good job making him take hard shots.

JEREMY LIN

On what happened in the fourth quarter and Aldridge's influence on the game:

"Yeah, they just made plays down the stretch. They executed and got a few loose balls and we were always just 7-8 away and couldn't really close it."

On the offensive execution of Houston in the fourth quarter:

"I thought we got some shots, we missed some shots, we didn't really shoot well from on the three-point line. But I think, I don't want to say we got terrible shots, we got good shots. Dwight did a great job scoring down low. So, it was just a tough one."

On a low turnover night tonight for Houston:

"We really took care of the ball tonight but I just think some defensive things, trying to figure out an effective coverage for some of their plays and trying to force the change midway through and then change it again. So, we just need to make sure we do a better job of executing our defensive plans."

On the amount of weapons Portland has:

"The tough part is, really, that all their guys can make plays. Wesley Matthews and Batum are great passers along with Lillard so they're a tough team to go at."

BLAZERS HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS

“The two halves were obviously a lot different. Neither team could really get it going offensively in the first half and the defense kind of held up for both teams. Everybody started and couldn’t find their groove offensively. We had a lot of good performances.”

“Obviously, LA was fantastic. He was just doing everything. The game was coming to him – big rebounds, big shots, kicked it out of the post when he needed to. He was terrific. Robin, even though Howard goes for 32 and 17, the fact that he took the challenge to guard him straight up and took threes out of the game. They really rely on the three a lot and we were able to kind of minimize what they did there. They’re a good transition team and they had their opportunities in the first half, but for the most part, for the game, we were able to minimize that as well. Obviously, it was a good home win.”

What was different about offense in second half?

“I don’t know if there was one thing in particular. I thought our passing was good. To be honest, I thought our offense was good in the first half, we just didn’t finish at the rim and we had some open looks. I thought we had a lot of really good opportunities in the first half that we didn’t finish. In the second half, the same opportunities were there and we were able to take advantage.”

On Aldridge defending perimeter players on switches:

“That’s a good point. It’s probably an understated part of his game tonight, was that he really took the challenge of when we switched on a lot of pick and rolls, he kept Harden and those guys in front of him. He made them shoot over the top of him. We didn’t get beat by penetration when he switched on to them, so he really communicated well. Our pick and roll coverage isn’t a straight switch, so it’s something that needs to be communicated… just the communication that enabled us to be effective with the switching as well.”

On success:

“We’re growing in confidence. I think we go into games with a certain level of confidence, but at the same time, we realize that we’re playing hard and our success is because we’re playing hard. It’s not coming easy. Our record is what it is, but it’s not easy. You have to compete every night. So I think the combination of confidence and just competing is there every night.”

DAMIAN LILLARD

What did you like most?

“Watching LA. I mean, that type of game, that’s fun to watch. He played really well. We was able to make plays when we needed to, get stops when we needed to. We didn’t shoot the ball well. For us to beat a good team like them without shooting the ball well, that says a lot about us.”

What does it do to have Aldridge playing so well?

“It gives us more confidence because we know that we can give him the ball at any time and something good is going to come from it. It was better to see him rebounding the ball the way he has been. To me, it seems he’s getting every rebound. I’m getting outlets from him and it seems like it’s him every time.”

On defense:

“We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we would have liked to. We needed to find a way to get stops so we would stick around because they’re an explosive offensive team. I think because we were able to get some stops, get it done defensively, we were able to stick around and then when shots did start to fall, we were able to pull away.”

On holding on after lead was cut to 2 with five minutes left:

“We just had to tighten up, execute our offense, get some good looks and tighten up on the defensive end also. We had a few big blocks from Robin and LA down low. They did a great job protecting the rim and guys made shots.”

On Aldridge’s 30 and 25 game:

“That just says how high of a level he’s playing. I’ve seen him get 30 and 20 twice before. In a big game like this, for him to go out there when you have Dwight Howard guarding you and Terrance Jones is a tall, athletic, long defender also. So for him to go out there and rebound the ball like that and score over guys like that, that says a lot about how much better he is playing.”

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (15-7) at Portland Trailblazers (18-4)

Point Differential:

Portland: +6.3 (NBA rank: 4th)

Houston: +6.3 (NBA rank: 4th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Portland: 109.5 (1st)

Houston: 107.8 (2nd)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Portland: 103.4 (19th)

Houston: 100.0 (8th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Portland: 96.34 (15th)

Houston: 99.01 (5th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Portland: 51.4% (6th)

Houston: 54.0% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Portland: 14.7 (7th)

Houston: 18.3 (30th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Portland: 51.9% (5th); offensive rebound rate: 29.5% (4th); defensive rebound rate: 73.8% (20th)

Houston: 53.9% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 28.9% (6th); defensive rebound rate: 74.1% (19th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Portland: .261 (20th)

Houston: .416 (1st)

What a difference a month makes. When the Rockets last made an appearance in Portland’s Moda Center, the typically loud and loaded building had empty seats aplenty and the buzz surrounding the Blazers could be classified as moderate at best. 16 wins and a mere two losses later, Portland leads the Western Conference and Blazermania is back to levels not seen since Brandon Roy was setting hearts aflame on a nightly basis. As a result, the fun factor for tonight’s game ought to be off the charts, featuring as it does two of the league’s top-six teams who will be squaring off before a national TV audience amid an in-arena atmosphere that figures to be somewhere between bananas and bedlam.

The faces on the floor are the same, but based on the club’s collective confidence alone, the test posed by Portland tonight will likely be far different than the one the Rockets aced while running away with a 116-101 victory the night of November 5. Houston owned the battle of the boards, paint and charity stripe that evening, and will likely need more of the same  - while keeping an oh-so-careful eye on the 3-point line – if it harbors hopes of toppling the Blazers for a second time this season.

Know Thy Enemy

- So a word or two about that 3-point line: with Wes Matthews, Damian Lillard and Nic Batum in the starting lineup, Portland boasts a terrifying triumvirate of triple threats, as each is currently draining well over 40 percent of their attempts from downtown (Note: Don't overlook reserves Dorell Wright or Mo Williams either, as both players can quickly become flammable from beyond the arc as well).

Matthews, in particular, has been nothing short of outrageous from deep this season, connecting at a rate of better than 48 percent from 3. How hot has he been? A quarter of the way into the NBA season, he’s currently locked into a remarkable battle with Kyle Korver for ownership of the most impressive shot chart in the league (a battle that Matthews is currently comfortably winning, by the way, given that he is a legitimate threat to attack the basket whereas Korver generally only does so when opponents roll out the red carpet to the rim).

Unsustainable? Sure. But simply having created such a masterpiece of shot-making brilliance through 22 games is still an achievement worthy of awe – and a massive amount of respect from the Rockets’ coaching staff.

“Matthews is just one of those guys that every coach would love to have on his team,” Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson said Tuesday while sizing up Portland’s cadre of long-range specialists. “He’s tough, he brings it every night and he’s shooting almost 48 percent from the 3-point line, and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. You’re talking about a kid who was undrafted and every night it’s like, ‘I’m going to show you guys you should have drafted me, and he plays that way.”

- Given the marksmanship displayed by the Blazers’ perimeter gunners to date, it should come as no surprise that Portland ranks in the league’s top-5 in both corner and above-the-break 3-point percentage. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the fact that the Blazers also reside in the NBA’s top-5 in terms of mid-range field goal percentage, making Portland the only team in the league to own top-5 marks in all three categories.

The club’s potency from mid-range, of course, is almost exclusively due to the shooting prowess of LaMarcus Aldridge, the NBA leader in terms of shot attempts from that typically inefficient area of the floor. In fact, Aldridge is lapping the competition in that category, having already launched 271 mid-range shots this season – a whopping 66 attempts more than second-place Dirk Nowitzki. Like Nowitzki, Aldridge connects enough (43.5 percent) from that area to be considered a constant threat regardless of where he is on the floor. All things being equal, it’s still a better bet to concede (hopefully contested) 18-to-20-footers to Aldridge rather than see him down low where there’s a higher chance of him drawing fouls or grabbing offensive boards, but he’s accurate enough from that distance to at least give one pause while contemplating this rather unique defensive conundrum, especially when taking the rest of Portland’s bevy of floor spacers into consideration.

- By now you’ve likely figured out that the Blazers’ starting five is a nightmare and the numbers certainly bear that out. Portland’s opening unit is the league’s second-ranked high-usage quintet (minimum: 200 minutes), boasting a net efficiency rating of +12.1 (only the Pacers’ starting five is better with a mark of +15.5). The Blazers’ bench, meanwhile, averages just 23.4 points per game, ranking 27th in the league in that category.

- Portland has been especially dangerous in the second half of games so far this season. The Blazers have outscored the competition by just one point per 100 possessions during the opening two quarters of play, but they’ve been 10.4 points per 100 possessions better than opponents in the second half – again, only Indiana has been better than the Blazers in that regard.

The Rockets, interestingly, inflict the majority of their damage during the first half of games. Their net rating during that time is +12.8 - second only to San Antonio. In the final two quarters of play, they’ve been three points per 100 possessions better than the competition.

All that having been said, it should be noted that Houston did its best work against Portland during the second half when these two teams last met (after outscoring Portland by five in the first half, the Rockets topped them by 10 during the final two periods of play).

- Lastly, a word about the Blazers’ defense. While that side of the floor is certainly not where Portland’s strengths lie, they are particularly stingy when it comes to defending the 3-point line. Only the Celtics allow fewer 3s per game than do the Blazers, and Portland is particularly frugal when it comes to conceding corner 3s: Blazers opponents average just 3.2 shots per game from that highly prized piece of real estate – a mark that represents the league’s lowest in that category by a considerable margin.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Portland’s opponents take the vast majority of their shots from mid-range and the painted area. Driving opportunities will be there tonight for Houston’s perimeter players and they must take advantage, much as they did the last time when the Rockets outscored Portland by a 54-28 margin in terms of paint points while James Harden and Dwight Howard combined to score 62 points, most of which came either at the rim or from the free throw line where they combined to hit 18 of their 22 attempts.  

In the spotlight

- It must be the SEC connection. How else to explain (besides using logic, of course) the early season synergy on display between Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley? When those three have shared the floor so far during the 2013-14 campaign, the Rockets are a +112 overall – easily standing as the top mark among all of Houston’s 3-man units to date. During the 284 minutes they have played together, the Rockets’ offensive rating is 114.6 (which would lead the league by a significant margin) while the club’s defensive mark is an almost as equally remarkable 94.1 (which would rank second in the NBA behind only Indiana). Only the Warriors’ threesome of Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala and David Lee boasts a higher net rating (+23.9) than the +20.5 owned by Houston’s trio.

Injury update

Jeremy Lin makes his return from injury tonight after having missed Houston’s last six games with a right knee sprain. Greg Smith (knee) and Omer Asik (thigh contusion) are out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.