The Portland Trail Blazers played the experience card, the talent card, and the shooting card, downing the Houston Rockets on Friday night 125-110. The Rockets brought an energetic attack, raiding the paint for points to threaten the lead that Portland built in the first period. But the Blazers had too many cards to play. They watched Houston flail away, then trumped them at every turn.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After you've seen that, here are the other factors that played into, or came out of, this contest.
Win the Lane, Win the Game
Solving Houston is not too difficult. They have a couple of three-point shooters, but not enough to stretch the floor continuously. If you can keep somebody on Eric Gordon, you can relax back into the paint to stop penetration and posts. Portland played accordingly in the first half, throwing the house at anybody who got past the initial layer of defense.
Houston struggled hitting threes at first. They did end up finding the range, but by then Portland had a healthy lead. No matter how many triples the Rockets hit, the Blazers matched them. Throughout the first half, Houston failed to generate enough points inside to capitalize or make a difference.
That changed dramatically in the second half. The Rockets not only went to the paint, they were determined to dunk there. They succeeded ... often. Their shooting percentage skyrocketed, their point total rose like a cresting wave, and they were in business. It was almost like, failing to follow the basic principle, Portland let them off the ropes.
Houston finished the game with 54 in the paint, a prodigious amount given their first-half production.
Portland has plenty of offensive weapons, particularly in the starting lineup. But the guy who brings the make-or-break shots that separate easy outings from difficult is also the least heralded. Robert Covington is not an offensive powerhouse. He's not having anywhere near his best season, scoring or shooting. But when he's hitting three-pointers, those shots tip the scales. Opponents love to abandon their post, sending extra defenders against Jusuf Nurkic, or just generally to the middle of the floor to gum up passing angles. Covington is the player they relax against. When he slips into a perimeter seam and nails the catch-and-shoot three, the Blazers sail ahead and the opposing defense slumps in dismay. Covington will not save bad offense for Portland, but he will turn good offense great.
Pick up the Pace
Pace played a huge role in this game. At different times, each team slowed down into grinding, slower offense. They suffered, almost without exception. Even when they generated a reasonable shooting percentage, the other team kept up or exceeded on sheer volume. Once Portland started playing quicker, they could not be stopped. Open shots off of simple, compact sets took them from a small advantage to a huge one. On the rare occasions the Rockets played quicker than Portland, they succeeded too. They just did not have the firepower or confidence to sustain those runs.
Houston's running, slashing, passing attack came at a cost. They committed 17 turnovers, though frankly it felt like double that. Portland did a good job hunting for steals and tipping away passes. Saying they have a defensive identity would be a stretch, but forcing more TO's is becoming a part of their MO
No Lane Defense Without Nurkic
The Blazers are experimenting with different coverages against opposing second units, including a zone look that they're becoming more comfortable with. But no matter what scheme they employ, it's becoming increasingly apparent that the Blazers have little-to-no interior defense without Jusuf Nurkic. As soon as the big guy sits, opponents attack the lane like they're riding an escalator into the VIP Lounge. The options end up being layup, free throws, or pass out for an open look if the Blazers send help. None of them turn out well for Portland. Getting Larry Nance, Jr. back might help the situation, but he was not holding ground that well earlier in the season. If the Blazers do end up trading Nurkic, they're going to need to solve this riddle or they'll have a loooonnnnng year ahead.
Ben McLemore continued his spate of solid games, returning to Houston — where he's still beloved — and hitting 4-9 from the arc for 12 points. That was 2⁄3 of Portland's bench production tonight. This team is thin. McLemore's threes are a good disguise for it.
Lack of Point Guards
With pace and scoring so critical, it became apparent that neither of these teams features a point guard they're truly comfortable with. Each squad passed. They got assists from multiple players. Some of the offense even looked pretty. But as the game got quick and shots came aplenty, it felt like the engines were revving at 8000 RPM but nobody had a steering wheel. There's a difference between a shot-maker, or even a willing passer, and a floor general.
If anyone is filling that role for Portland right now, it might be Nurkic. He plays with confidence, seeing the floor, making plays in his own time. The game bends around him more than it does around anyone else right now. But his pace is so deliberate, and the need to center the ball on him so pervasively, that it's not really a comfortable option. (Plus, he had zero assists tonight.)
The Blazers did not get bit by it, because Houston has the same issue, but with a wide-open, anything-goes game on tap, the issue showed.
Simons Says, “Player of the Month”
Anfernee Simons is finishing off his January in high style. He scored 27 points tonight, hitting 11-17 shots, 5-9 from distance. His 6 assists led the team. To be fair, CJ McCollum scored 26 on 10-20 shooting, not a shabby outing. But Simons proved the steadier option, delivering whenever Portland needed. If he does not get mentioned for NBA Player of the Month, something is wrong,
The Blazers face the Chicago Bulls on Sunday at 1:30 PM. Pacific.