HOUSTON – On the second night of back-to-back games against a team that had three days to prepare, the Portland Trail Blazers showed some maturity we haven’t seen from them in recent seasons.
The Houston Rockets and the Trail Blazers sleepwalked through the first quarter and a half –- missing shots and turning the ball over at an alarming rate. But Portland woke up about halfway through that quarter and took a 51-36 lead into halftime.
The Rockets, admittedly playing without their best player, James Harden, never did wake up and the result was a 104-85 win over the Rockets – the Blazers’ third on the final game of a four-game trip.
That 15-point halftime lead has been precarious for the Trail Blazers in past seasons on the road. It can be erased in a hurry. But not on this night, Portland took care of business.
A couple of Jusuf Nurkic dunks, a jumper by CJ McCollum, a wide-open three-pointer from Jake Layman, a layup by Nurkic and the Blazers had taken over the game at 64-42.
“It’s part of maturity,” Damian Lillard said. “If you go up by 15 in the first half and maybe at halftime you think it’s going to be easy. A lot of times you forget how hard it was to do what you did in the first place.
“You might think it’s just going to continue. That shows growth on our part – we came out and we jumped right back into it. We kept the pace up, we defended, we screened, we got to spots and we kept the pressure on them. Once we figured out all the switches and the lead grew I sort of sat back and waited for the change but they never changed it. So I was like, ‘So all right, let’s just keep going downhill and keep going at it.’
“And the lead grew, I think if we can be that team consistently, we can be fine.”
It took the Trail Blazers a while to figure out the Rockets’ switching defense but once they solved the riddle they punished Houston’s small-on-big switches inside.
The Rockets beat the Blazers in a game last season without Harden but they are nowhere close to that same team right now. Their defense is in shambles, thanks in some degree to the addition of Carmelo Anthony to the squad.
Houston Coach Mike “D’Antoni made no attempt to sugar-coat how his team played.
“Last year, we played well,” he said. “Right now, we’re playing like crap. That’s the difference. We’re just not playing well. You know, I don’t have a whole lot of answers for you right now. We’ll look, we’ll fight it.
“Not making shots, not making foul shots, not making layups and last year we did.”
Somebody asked him if his team was searching for an offensive identity.
“Not identity,” he said. “Just searching for a basket every once in a while would be nice.”
D’Antoni also had a fresh way of describing what Portland did to his team to open the second half.
“The team basically smacked us a little bit,” he said.
Portland Coach Terry Stotts was proud of the way his team started the third quarter.
“That was really good,” he said. “To get a quick lead and jump out on them like that and get it up to 20, rather than give them any life early I think that was really important.”
Lillard knows by now what his league is like. Things can change – fast.
“The NBA,” he said, “It’s fragile. Things have to be done a certain way and there has to be a commitment made to keep it that way.
“I mean, I thought they were going to beat Golden State. But it’s not easy to be at that level. One guy gets hurt, one bad game – but you know they’re going to be one of the better teams.”
But they certainly weren’t Tuesday night.