The Portland Trail Blazers are still on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference but have started playing with some consistency with another victory.
Portland improved to 3-1 in its last four games with a 125-112 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday at Moda Center. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum spearheaded the latest effort, helping the Trail Blazers improve to 21-27 on the campaign.
As for the Rockets, they are still a solid 29-18 even though they fell to 1-2 against Portland this season.
Notable Player Stats
- POR G Damian Lillard: 36 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and eight turnovers
- POR G CJ McCollum: 22 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks
- POR F Trevor Ariza: 21 points, four rebounds and two steals
- HOU G Russell Westbrook: 39 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and six turnovers
- HOU G James Harden: 18 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks
Dame Wins the Latest Chapter in His Rivalry with Westbrook
There's playing well during a stretch, and there's what Lillard has been doing.
The four-time All-Star exploded for 61 points against the Golden State Warriors, 47 points against the Dallas Mavericks and 50 points against the Indiana Pacers in his previous three games. In fact, his back-to-back 34-point showings in the two games before that run is downright pedestrian compared to his recent output.
That hot streak set the stage for the latest chapter of his rivalry with Russell Westbrook, which was dialed up another notch during last season's playoffs when Lillard sent his counterpart's Oklahoma City Thunder home with a buzzer-beater and wave.
The two points guards never back down from each other, whether it is a physical battle on the court, a trash-talking session off it or playing to the crowd, and Wednesday was no different.
Lillard was brilliant again in the first half with 25 points, unleashing three-pointers whenever he had a sliver of space and darting between defenders who dared press up on his outside shot to either score at the rim himself or hit teammates with kick-outs and dump passes.
From a statistical standpoint, Westbrook largely kept pace with his relentless attacking of the rim and tendency to attack the boards. Both had trouble with turnovers, but that is understandable considering there was seemingly additional motivation to be aggressive in the one-on-one matchup.
Lillard took something of a backseat scoring-wise but continued to dish out assists and grab rebounds in the second half as his Trail Blazers put the game away, and he earned the latest bragging rights with a win even though Westbrook put up solid numbers as well.
James Harden Relatively Quiet in Return
James Harden missed the last two games with a left thigh injury, and his team went 1-1 without him. In fact, the win came against the Utah Jazz when Westbrook was also sidelined.
Harden was not the typical MVP candidate fans are accustomed to seeing in Wednesday's loss.
Westbrook was far more aggressive and initiated much of the offense, while Harden found himself in the corner for extended stretches and not getting to the free-throw line as much as usual with six attempts. Harden also had some turnover issues (six) as he worked his way back, which was a testament to Portland's tendency to swarm him when he did get the ball.
The eight-time All-Star also struggled with his shot throughout, undercutting any realistic comeback hopes the Rockets had down the stretch.
Ultimately, Houston isn't going to win many games against Western Conference contenders when Harden shoots 5-of-18 from the field and 2-of-8 from deep if he isn't making up for it with double-digit free-throw attempts.
Both teams are in action Friday when the Rockets host the Dallas Mavericks and the Trail Blazers are at the Los Angeles Lakers.