Going into the game, it looked bad for Portland.
In fact, in my preview I said, "With that said, tired legs make it hard to go after the rebounds aggressively and Houston is pretty solid on the boards. Look for a poor shooting night from Portland to be compounded by rebounding woes and Houston will sneak out a road win."
I concluded with the comment that, "I would not be surprised to see the Blazers show their heart and win this but I expect a Rockets victory, probably in the 8-12 point range."
As they did in the New Orleans game Portland started out strong. Joel Przybilla got the crowd involved with his block on a Chuck Hayes dunk attempt. Roy was scoring seemingly at will and then the other Blazers got involved. Yao Ming got off to a rough start with 0-3 shooting and three turnovers. Houston's leading scorer after the first quarter had exactly three points, all from the free-throw line. However, they had eight people scoring, so the 23-16 Portland lead was nowhere near as large as it could have been.
Former Blazer Bonzi Wells led a quick 7-0 run to pull Houston into a tie and then one of the best surprises for the Blazers this year, Travis Outlaw, stepped up with a quick 4 spot of his own. Tracy McGrady and LaMarcus Aldridge put on a show with 8 points apiece. With Roy (nine points), Aldridge and Outlaw all scoring Portland managed to regain the lead and led 50-42 at the half.
All year, the third quarter has belonged to the Blazers' opponents. A good third for Portland is typically where they only have a four or five point deficit, which they can then erase in the fourth.
This night the third would be another problem. The Blazers started with four missed shots and four turnovers, got one of two free throws from Martell Webster, then added another three missed shots and a turnover before Roy went one of two from the line. While Portland scored just two points in the first six minutes and change of the third, Houston was getting balanced contributions and scored 14 to take a 56-52 lead. As they have done so often this year, the Blazers responded with a quick 6-2 run, and despite scoring just 12 points in the third quarter, they were tied at 62 after three.
At that point, it seemed like a game the Blazers should win. They have owned the fourth quarter all year, especially at home. Houston is a very strong team—one of the teams that I believe has underperformed to this point in the season, in large part due to injury—but home games are the ones you need to win.
And it looked like Portland would. The teams traded baskets and leads. The Rockets extended to a three-point lead at the 7:47 mark and from there the Blazers kept pulling within one instead of taking the lead. But we have seen that before.
Late in the quarter Roy and Outlaw took over. The defense clamped down, all the rebounds that they could not corral earlier in the game now fall into Blazer hands, and different guys step up every game.
However, after Aldridge brought the Blazers within one at 74-73, the Blazers saw McGrady drain a three, Luis Scola score, and Carl Landry complete a three-point play. Meanwhile, Jack turned the ball over, Aldridge and Outlaw missed shots, and suddenly the deficit was eight with just 2:49 remaining.
Houston is a good team and they did what they needed to close out the game. It was a game that with five minutes to go could have been won by either team. Most of the season this is a game Portland would have won—but lately, they have not been finishing games, starting with their double overtime loss in Toronto.
But there are other factors that came into play in this game.
Portland shot a paltry 35.7 percent for the game. Oddly, they shot better from three-point range (41.7 percent) than they did overall. You can get away with poor shooting if you are forcing the opponent to shoot poorly, winning the rebound battle, and not turning the ball over. Houston shot 40 percent, out rebounded Portland 48-30, and only had four more turnovers than Portland. So those extra rebounds made the difference.
18 extra rebounds and four extra turnovers essentially equals a 14-possession advantage. Both Portland and Houston made five threes and 24 free throws. Houston took four more two-point field goals than Portland. In other words, that six-percent shooting percentage difference resulted in five extra made field goals and gave them their 10-point margin.
Earlier this season Charles Barkley, in his job as a TNT analyst, was criticized by many Blazer fans for asserting that Portland would not make the playoffs because they cannot get easy baskets. This game was an example of his prediction coming true. Just as the Hornets did, the Rockets figured out how to keep Roy out of the lane and keep him from making lay-ins or dishing for easy baskets. This time, Outlaw did not take over and pick up the slack. Meanwhile the Rockets got balanced scoring from their entire team. Eight players scored at least eight points each, and no one had more than 15.
From the preseason I have been enthused about this Blazer team. Sure, the loss of their top pick was going to hurt, but this is a team with talent. Roy and Aldridge make a solid one-two punch, I expected 12-15 points from Martell Webster and Jarrett Jack in support, and Joel Przybilla fills the bill of defense and rebounding without demanding the ball. However, even with that enthusiasm I pegged them for maybe a 42-44 win team. This game is illustrative of why I still think that is about the right number.
I expect a lot of things will be said about "fatigue" and "the hardest game of a road trip is the first one home," but the fact remains the Blazers put themselves in a position to win and closed out with 12 and 17 points. Good teams might let fatigue affect things like that...great teams don't.
Somehow, I cannot see the Michael Jordan-led Bulls teams of the early 90s losing a game like this. That is the difference between this Blazer team winning 50 and winning the low to mid 40s total they will achieve. They let winnable games against good teams get away.
That is not to take anything away from the Rockets. They are a very good team that will end with a better record than the Blazers in no small part because in games like this where their stars play sub-par games (Ming had 11 points on 2-8 shooting, 10 rebounds, but four turnovers and McGrady shot just 5-14 and had another five turnovers) their role players step up and take away games.
Defense and rebounding win a lot of games. Both teams played some very good defense but only one team got the rebounds and that was the difference.