Portland dominated early in Houston Thursday night, leading by as many as 20 points in the first quarter thanks to Damian Lillard’s hot start and the Rockets’ offensive struggles.
That quickly changed as Houston turned up the defense and got out in transition in the second quarter making it a game again.
But it was Portland’s two three-year guards that came to the rescue in the second half.
Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts stuck with the same starting lineup for the second straight contest with Gary Trent Jr. starting at the two in place of the injured CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony starting at power forward in place of Robert Covington who missed his second straight game with a concussion.
After only scoring 18 points total as a team in the second quarter, the Blazers got a big boost offensively from Trent Jr.
The Trail Blazers shooting guard caught fire from behind the arc.
And in the fourth quarter it was Anfernee Simons’ turn from long distance.
When all of Houston’s focus was on Lillard in the final seconds and the Trail Blazers were down 102-98, Lillard found Simons from 25-feet out.
He confidently drained the three to cut the lead to one with 3.1 seconds remaining.
There was no hesitation from Simons.
Nor was there any from Lillard when he kicked it out to the 21-year-old backup point guard.
As coach Terry Stotts put it, Simons is ready for big moments.
Simons has averaged 18.7 points in his last three games with McCollum out and has been imperative to Portland staying within striking distance.
His same rookie class teammate, Trent Jr., has shared in Simons’ recent success and couldn’t be happier for his teammate and friend.
“I’m yelling at him, I’m talking to him on the court, just keeping him going,” Trent Jr. continued. “Telling him good shot, all those good things.”
Simons has been showing all ‘good things’ on both ends in his most recent games.
And even though he wasn’t able to knock down a 31-foot three-point attempt at the buzzer to force overtime, Simons’ confidence and shot-making down the stretch coupled with Trent Jr.’s shooter’s mentality, should give Blazers’ fans hope that Portland will be able to tread water with McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic out for an extended period of time.
Following Thursday’s loss, Lillard discussed how he sees plenty of value in having those two step up on a nightly basis, especially while the team is shorthanded.
“I think there’s a lot of value to it,” Lillard said of both Trent Jr. and Simons taking big shots in crunch time. “I think typically in the NBA and specifically on our team a lot of time young guys don’t really break the rotation right away.”
The Trail Blazers point guard also added that as the team was “in the heat of the battle” against the Rockets they could rely on the two guards.
“You had GT getting hot and getting us back into the game,” Lillard said. “And then down the stretch you had Ant hitting big threes in situations where it’s like these are big moments and it’s opportunity for their growth… And also, for the growth of their confidence."
Trent Jr. finished with 23 points after hitting 7-of-13 from deep, while Simons added 14.
And that’s what Lillard was struggling with postgame.
Portland now falls to 9-8 on the season with the Chicago Bulls up next.
With five more games on their current road trip, the story is not over. It’ll be time for the confident three-year players to continue to knock down clutch shots while as a team the Trail Blazers capitalize on the growth of Simons and Trent Jr.