Bubble Blazers Stay The Course In Win Versus Rockets

by Casey Holdahl
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The Trail Blazers improved their chances of at least forcing a play in series for the eight-seed in the West, if not outright claiming the spot, with a 110-102 victory versus the Houston Rockets at The Arena on the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus on the grounds of the Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando Tuesday night.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well in the paint, didn’t shoot the ball well on second-chance points,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “But I think more than anything else, we competed. It wasn’t pretty all night, but more than anything else, we competed for 48 minutes. I know it’s cliche but we didn’t have our best game but it was our best game as far as competing for the entire game.”

The Trail Blazers are now 31-38 overall and 2-1 through their first three “seeding games” of an eight-game schedule in Orlando. With the win, the Trail Blazers move into within 1.5 games of the eighth-place Grizzlies and are a half game up on the 10th-place Spurs and one game up on the 11th-place Pelicans with five games to play.

While the race for the eight-seed seemingly changes after every game in Orlando, after Tuesday’s win, Portland controls their own destiny, at least in regard to potentially forcing a play in series for the final spot in the West.

“You only can worry about yourself because it’s going to be a race and teams are going to win games,” said Stotts. “It’s so tight that you can’t worry about them because you have to worry about yourself.”

Which is exactly how Portland entered Tuesday’s game. Despite Rockets playing the shortest starting lineup in the league with an emphasis on taking and making three-pointers rather than posting up, Stotts stuck with the starting lineup featuring Carmelo Anthony at small forward, Zach Collins at power forward and Jusuf Nurkić at center that he used in the first two games in Orlando.

And the decision paid off. The Trail Blazers outrebounded the Rockets 37-15 overall and 9-0 on the offensive glass and scored 10 more points in the paint in the first half. Between those two factors and the Rockets shooting poorly, at least by their standards, from three for most of the first half, Portland went up by as many as 13 points in the second quarter, even with Damian Lillard scoring just four points.

"(Lillard) didn’t let that deter him," said Stotts. "He made some big shots in the second half, was aggressive going to the basket. No matter what kind of game Dame has going, you know that he’s going to keep playing the next play."

But as is often the case for teams that shoot as frequently as the Rockets, the percentages started to come around late in the first half. By time the second quarter ended, Houston was up to nearly 40 percent shooting from deep and Portland’s lead was down to 61-56 by the intermission.

Houston managed to remedy a number of their first-half issues, outrebounding Portland’s in the third quarter while shooting 5-of-11 from three. But the Trail Blazers retained their advantage in the paint, outscoring the Rockets by 10 again in the third slightly build on their halftime lead going into the fourth.

Houston started the fourth by outscoring Portland 8-2 in the first two and a half minutes of the quarter to tie the game at 88-88. But as would be the case throughout the fourth, the Blazers always got a big shot, often a three-pointer, at just the right time to hold Houston at bay.

First it was Lillard netting a three with 7:55 to play to break the deadlock. Then after Jeff Green scored four-straight to knot the game at 98-98 with 5:15 to play, Jusuf Nurkić earned a trip to the line and made both free throws to reclaim lead. Russell Westbrook answered with a dunk on the next possession to tie the game at 100-100, but after turnovers by both teams and a block by Carmelo Anthony of a PJ Tucker corner three, Gary Trent Jr. converted a three with just under three minutes to play to once again break the tie and surpass the century mark.

James Harden, held in relative check Tuesday night, finished a layup with 2:14 to play to cut the lead to one, but that would be Houston’s last points of the affair. Lillard would go 1-of-2 from the line to increase the lead back to two, and then Anthony cashed in a three with 54.6 seconds to play to make it a two-possession game. Houston’s outside shooting would fail them again -- Danuel House, Harden and Robert Covington would all miss from deep in the final 46 seconds of the game -- while the Trail Blazers finished off the win while also claiming the season series.

Lillard finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and eight assists to come close within shouting distance of a triple-double. CJ McCollum went 8-of-18 for 20 points, seven rebonds and five assists in just under 40 minutes.

Jusuf Nurkić continued to look like a man who had not spent the last 16 months rehabbing an injury, going 6-of-15 from the field and 6-of-6 from the line for 18 points to go with 19 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal in 39 minutes.

Anthony went for a double-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and Trent Jr., one of the pleasant surprises of the 22-team restart, came off the bench to score 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field in 35 minutes.

Harden led the Rockets with 23 points on 7-of-17 shooting, nine assists and six rebonds in 33 minutes. Jeff Green added 22 points and six rebounds off the bench. Russell Westbrook had a 36-game streak of scoring at least 20 points broken with a 15-point, nine-assist performance Tuesday night.

Next up, the Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets as they reach the midway point of their restart schedule. Tipoff is scheduled for Thursday at 5 p.m.

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