The Trail Blazers Tuesday night played most of their game against Houston the old-school way. You know, get the ball down low to the big man, if he has a matchup advantage, lock down on the other team’s best players and rebound the basketball.
So many teams have surrendered to the Rockets’ small-ball lineup, deciding they better go small and try to beat them at their own game, And they have usually failed. Portland didn’t give in. The Blazers stayed big all night and made the Rockets pay in an impressive 110-102 win that brought Portland’s bubble record to 2-1.
“We wanted them to adjust to us instead of us coming out and switching up everything we do,” said Portland’s Damian Lillard, who led his team with 21 points. “Since we’ve been here, we’ve been challenging our bigs to be ready to step up and switch and chase guys on the perimeter and also protect the paint.
“And our bigs have done a great job. Nurk, Hassan, Zach -- they’ve all done a great job. And tonight was no different on the defensive end. They were having to close out to guys and (the Rockets) made some threes but we said we’re going to make them pay on the glass and beat guys inside to try to take advantage of that and we’re going to see who gets the better of who at playing their game.
“And I believe it showed we were able to win that battle.”
And they are one of the few teams in the league who have pulled that off. But it was Portland’s third win in four tries against the Rockets. And a lot of that is due to a mixed bag of Trail Blazer defensive tactics, which features all sorts of different looks on Houston high-scorer James Harden. Portland held him under 20 points in its two previous wins over the Rockets and he got only 23 Tuesday night. Russell Westbrook had just 15. The duo combined to hit just 12 of its 31 shots.
Portland focuses much of its defense on Harden, using double-teams, different players one-on-one and traps against him and it has been effective.
The Blazers got a heaping helping of clutch play from Carmelo Anthony down the stretch, when the game turned into a three-point contest -- which you aren’t supposed to be able to win against the Rockets.
But with the score tied at 100 and under three minutes to play, the veteran Hall of Famer-to-be showed why he has been such a big addition to the roster. He’s battle tested and comfortable in tight spots.
Melo blocked a three-point shot by P.J. Tucker that led to a Gary Trent three-point goal that boosted Portland into the lead.
Then, after Harden missed a three and with the Trail Blazers nursing a two-point lead, Anthony calmly knocked down a 27-foot triple to boost his team into a five-point edge with 54.6 seconds to play. The Rockets missed three more shots from behind the arc after that and Portland marched out of the arena with a very big win.
Melo has made a career of hitting game-winners and big shots in the clutch. And at the beginning of a career or near the end of one, he doesn’t believe you lose that rare ability to step up and make a shot with a game on the line.
“Honestly, I don’t think you lose that, right?” he said. “You have it. It’s something that you have to want to do. You have to be willing to put yourself in those situations -- enjoy those moments and take those shots and believe you can make those shots.
“Making those shots, not in an arrogant way, I’ve always enjoyed those moments. And I still do enjoy that moment. My teammates believe in me, to be able to get me the ball in those moments and all I have to do is deliver.
“And I’ve been doing that.”
Portland led most of the game, thanks to its size advantage inside. And even though the Trail Blazers went just 22-for-49 in the paint, their massive 64-39 rebound advantage and solid defensive job on Harden and Westbrook carried them to victory.
And at least for one NBA game, size mattered.