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Rockets Undone By Red-Hot Blazers

PORTLAND, OR - There were times it seemed as if Nicolas Batum didn’t even bother looking at the rim upon rising up, firing and draining his latest Rockets-killing three. At others, the same could be said of rookie sensation Damian Lillard, who took over down the stretch by sinking an assortment of shots that shattered any degree of difficulty measurement known to man.

And by the time those two were done laying waste to what once was a 16-point Houston lead, the Rockets were once again left to wonder what might have been after suffering their second straight overtime defeat at the hands of the Portland Trailblazers, this time by a final score of 119-117.

Were there larger issues at play than simply superhuman shot-making that led to this loss? Of course there were. The Rockets struggled to close out quarters, turned the ball over too many times in the second half and, after putting on an offensive exhibition for most of the game, allowed some familiar stagnation issues to resurface during the final few minutes of regulation.

Each of those issues needs to be addressed and corrected. But let’s be frank: The Rockets played well enough to win Friday night and, if not for the jaw-dropping second-half heroics of Batum and Lillard who combined for 62 points – 39 of which came in the second half and overtime – Houston would indeed have collected an important victory Friday night over a Western Conference foe at the beginning of a daunting three-game west coast road swing.

Instead, the Rockets were forced to lick their wounds and shake their heads once more while suffering through a feeling not terribly dissimilar to the one they experienced just four days prior when only the sublime efforts of LeBron James stood between the Rockets and the win column Monday night against Miami.

“We always want to say, ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’ I know we had some untimely turnovers, but Batum was making shots with us in his grill,” said acting Rockets Head Coach Kelvin Sampson. “(They made) contested threes. We guarded them the way we wanted to guard them. Sometimes you have to tip your hat and say, ‘Batum, those are great shots. Lillard, those are great shots.’”

Added Chandler Parsons: “It’s frustrating. It hurts. We feel as if we should have won this game and we feel as though we should have won a lot of the other games. Something’s got to change where we can close out games better so that when we get these big leads we can keep them and extend them.”

Those answers might be difficult to glean when simply peering through the prism of this particular contest. Sure, the Rockets didn’t help themselves when they finished an otherwise exceptional first half by conceding an 8-0 Portland run over the final 80 seconds of the second quarter. And no, a rash of turnovers due to a bizarre string of offensive fouls in the third period didn’t help either.

But just like the aforementioned Miami game, the Rockets counterbalanced many of their miscues with some pretty fine shot-making of their own. Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris again delivered clutch performances in the fourth quarter, hitting several shots that could have been daggers in another dimension where their opponents don’t always win these games of ‘anything you can do I can do better.’ Omer Asik was his usual dominant double-double self, racking up 16 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime. James Harden put up another ho-hum 29, 6 and 6. And Jeremy Lin enjoyed perhaps his finest game as a Rocket from the standpoint of floor generalship, dishing out 11 assists, many of which arrived in spectacular, no-look fashion.

Make no mistake: There are no moral victories here. As Sampson said after his team’s disappointing defeat, the Rockets very much remain a work in progress. But that’s not to say Houston gave this game away. Any rational analysis would be far more likely to ascertain that Portland simply stole it thanks to the brilliance of Batum, Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

“Tonight is going to be hard to judge just because they hit some ridiculous shots but we’ve just got to keep working at it,” said Parsons, who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds. “We’re going through experiences right now together as a team that’s going to make us better. It hurts right now because we hate losing but we’re going to learn from it and hopefully get better from it because we’re going to be in this situation a lot.”

QUOTES

KELVIN SAMPSON

(what happened in the third quarter?)

We just had some unfortunate errors. Chandler through one to (Asik) that went through his wickets. We had a couple of screening fouls – we havent’ had a problem with that all year. Just turnovers. We were getting good looks. Our offense was not the issue tonight. The first half we got the shots we wanted and knocked them down. We’re still a work in progress in a lot of ways.

I thought in the flow our offense was really good because we kept finding the open man. Then in the last three-and-a-half minutes of regulation we got a little sticky. We still have to work at that and trust each other.

(what makes it difficult to play with a lead?)

I don’t think being a young team had a lot to do with this. I don’t think us losing the lead was tonight was any different than San Antonio losing their lead last night. That team made hard shots. We always want to say, ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’ I know we had some untimely turnovers, but Batum was making shots with us in his grill. Other than foul him, I don’t know what else we could have done there. You can’t go trap him on that. He was making hard shots … We were getting good looks and they were getting hard looks.

(They made) contested threes. We guarded them the way we wanted to guard them. Sometimes you have to tip your hat and say, ‘Batum, those are great shots. Lillard, those are great shots.’ I liked the way we attacked. Our goal is to protect the paint. I thought we did a great job protecting the paint, and the second half we did a much better job of defensive rebounding.

(playing Douglas in OT instead of Lin basically a response to what Lillard did down the stretch?)

I just thought it was a little bit better defensive matchup. I thought Jeremy played well and I thought Toney did well. Both our point guards played well tonght.

CHANDLER PARSONS

When those guys are hitting shots like that, nobody in the world is going to stop them. (Batum) had serious momentum going with him and everything he was throwing up was going in. If we look back at the film, it was pretty good D; Marcus was in him, I was contesting him, so it was just tough shots. But that’s how it goes. I don’t expect it to go like that for the rest of the season but it’s definitely frustrating when we keep losing these games that we think we should win.

It’s frustrating. It hurts. We feel as if we should have won this game and we feel as though we should have won a lot of the other games. Something’s got to change where we can close out games better so that when we get these big leads we can keep them and extend them. It’s definitely frustrating that feeling of losing when you feel like you’ve played better than the other team the whole game.

We just have to stick to our game plan. We can change anything when it gets tight. We’ve got to be who we are: We’ve got to get stops, rebound and get out on the break; we can’t slow it down just because we have a lead. Tonight is going to be hard to judge just because they hit some ridiculous shots but we’ve just got to keep working at it. We’re going through experiences right now together as a team that’s going to make us better. It hurts right now because we hate losing but we’re going to learn from it and hopefully get better from it because we’re going to be in this situation a lot.

JAMES HARDEN

I think we played well tonight, offensively and defensively. I think Batum just had a phenomenal third quarter; he was making tough shots with a hand in his face and Lillard really closed the game with step-back threes and shots we really wanted him to take, so hats off to them.

(on how far the offense has come)

We’re moving the ball exceptionally well. I think guys are making plays; we had five or six guys in double figures. The ball’s been moving really well and we’re doing a great job.

BLAZERS HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS

“It was a hell of a game. We kind of make it interesting, but I think one thing that’s kind of been evident with our team so far this year is that we compete until the end. For a long stretch of the game, it wasn’t the way we wanted it but when it mattered, we played pretty well.”

On Batum:

“Nic had a roll going – that stretch where everything was going in and then he came back in and he stayed hot. The shots that he made were not easy but he made it look easy.”

“When you win a game, you look at all the positives. We had a lot of good effort offensively and defensively. Jared Jeffries comes in and takes two charges and changes the dynamics of the game with his defense just like he did in Sacramento. Meyers Leonard added energy and rim protection. Obviously, all the offensive players did what they did. Wes Matthews took the challenge of guarding Harden – actually the whole team did. We blitzed him and tried to make his pick and rolls difficult on him. So there’s a lot of praise to go around.”

“Meyers was good. Meyers is a good shooter. People haven’t gotten to see him shoot that much but hes a good free throw shooter, he’s a good mid-range shooter. But he was extremely active on his pick and roll defense. He was showing on multiple pick and rolls on the same possession. He changed some shots around the rim. It was a good performance.”

On coming back to Aldridge after Lillard taking many of the shots late in fourth:

“It was by design. When Asik fouled out, we wanted to go to LaMarcus. It’s hard for one guy to carry it. Nic had his spurt and Damian had his spurt and we needed LaMarcus to change it up, rather than have a steady diet of the same thing.”

Is it a win that a young team can ride a bit?

“I hope so. But to me, it was very similar to our game down in Houston. The first half, we were out of sorts at both ends of the court in both these games. We came out in the second half with more determination, we trusted the pass more, and again, it went into overtime like it did in Houston. I thought the two games were very similar. That being said, in Houston, I was hoping that would be a defining game for us the way we won it, and this game was very similar.”

DAMIAN LILLARD

On getting hot late in the game:

“I think I just got open looks at the end of the game. Nic got hot and he really carried us and then LA was hot also. He made a lot of shots. I think the defense just ended up having to suck in on them and I started to get looks and I just got going. “

On Batum’s performance:

“He was great. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him get hot like that. I’ve seen it in practice but I’ve seen it in games also. I think tonight, we really needed it. It lasted a long time. Usually when people get hot, it will be in a short spurt, but he was hot for a few quarters. We really needed him.”

On both games w/ Rockets going to OT:

“Well they’re one of those teams that we’re going to be in the same distance, we’re going to be in the same situation. It’s important for us to win these games. They’re a western conference team and will probably be in the same range we will be toward the end of the season. They understand that, so it’s important for us to not only win those games but to take care of home.”

MEYERS LEONARD

On playing minutes down the stretch:

“We were just kind of on a roll with the lineup he had in. I was playing pretty well. Our defensive scheme was working well with how many ball screens they run and trying to spread the floor. So I think it was just the situation of the game. Every game changes, but I always give my full effort.”