Portland Trail Blazers

Winning formula: How the Trail Blazers controlled James Harden and pace of the game

Portland Trail Blazers

A quick look back at an impressive Portland win in the Orlando Bubble:

The Trail Blazers have struggled on defense for a good part of this season, but in their last three games against the Houston Rockets -- all wins -- there isn’t much evidence of that.

Portland has been able to keep the Rockets, and their superstar scorer James Harden, under control and Tuesday night’s 110-103 win was another example of a defensive game plan working to near perfection.

For the Trail Blazers, stopping Harden has been Job One. Portland has double-teamed him, trapped him and used multiple defenders on him. The result has been that Harden has not had a lot of opportunities to get into his cat-and-mouse, one-on-one show, putting defenders on ice skates with his step backs, rip-throughs and side steps.

Harden is averaging 22.5 shot attempts per game for the season, but in the last three contests vs. Portland he’s managed to get only 12, 18 and 17 shots. He is 15 for 47. He averages 12.5 three-point attempts per game and in these last three vs. the Blazers he’s taken only 6, 8 and 8.

And Portland isn’t fouling him, either. Harden is a magician at getting to the line, but he’s managed just 8, 6 and 7 attempts in those three games, while averaging 11.9 for the season.

Averaging 34.3 points per game this year, Harden has scored 13, 18 and 23 in those last three Portland games.

“It is difficult for him to get a rhythm,” Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni said following Tuesday night’s loss.

But D’Antoni pointed to another thing the Trail Blazers are doing that is affecting the Rockets. Portland is slowing Houston down.

“We didn’t play at our pace,” said the Rockets’ coach. “And if we don’t play at our pace, we just kind of play into them. Then they’re going to beat us up a little bit. And they did that, especially in the first half.

“I think our biggest problem with the whole game, first of all, we didn’t come out with a lot of energy. It was pretty soft at the start. We never pushed, we never really got the big push to move the ball, so we gave them a chance to double him every time.

“OK, you all double us, pass, we’ll get a shot. We got a lot of open shots, but we have to play faster, and we have to go before the double team gets to James… That’s where we made a mistake.”

Harden was also burdened with foul trouble, including a controversial fifth foul that Harden didn’t like. D’Antoni was asked why he didn’t ask for video review of the play and his answer was refreshingly honest.

“It was a foul,” he said. “I looked at it and thought it was a foul. I didn’t want to challenge it at that point.”

Portland went big throughout the game, but the Rockets, who have had great success playing small ball, did not exploit a perceived edge in quickness.

“We just kind of got into their kind of game,” D’Antoni said. “We weren’t running. They were big, a little bit slower than us, and we played just the way they played.

“It was a lack of energy, third game, heavy legs -- i don’t know. We just couldn’t get over the hump.

“Their bigs are good. Nurkic is a load.”

Harden didn’t talk much about the Portland defense.

“You know, I think we had a lot of opportunities we missed,” he said. “Defensively, we played hard. They made shots down the stretch and we didn’t.

“I couldn’t get as aggressive as I wanted. Mainly foul trouble. Like I said, we had a lot of open shots that, if we make those, it’s a different ballgame. Even myself, I had some good shot opportunities late in the fourth quarter that just didn’t go in.”