It might have been a regular season game, but it was all about the playoffs when the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Houston Rockets 105-100 behind a big night from LaMarcus Aldridge to claim the season series and gain a tiebreaker over their opponents in the standings.
With the win, the Blazers move to third in the West, improving to 42-20. The Rockets fall to 43-21, which puts both teams 8.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors and two behind the Memphis Grizzlies. With things looking rather close between seeds 3 through 7, this kind of tiebreaker could mean having home court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs or in some other stage. The Rockets had home court advantage in their series with the Blazers last season and still managed to find themselves heading to an early summer vacation.
The key for the Blazers in this win was about stopping James Harden, who scored 14 points in the first half but ended up with just 18 points on 7-of-19 from the field. Despite another strong performance off the bench from Corey Brewer to pull the Rockets to within one point in the final 15 seconds with a steal off of Damian Lillard and a dunk, the Blazers sealed the deal from the line and managed to escape an embarrassing collapse.
With Wesley Matthews out of the picture, it was up to Nicolas Batum to make things difficult for Harden. The French forward spent most of the second half guarding Harden and limiting him to 1-of-5 from the field. Harden got to the line only five times during the game, proving the point that a lot of his excellence has something to do with the amount of fouls officials give him. Batum did an excellent job of keeping him away from the paint.
Besides defense, the Blazers went with their advantage in the post. LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 26 points, 13 of them coming on post-up plays, outscoring the Rockets by 11 points on such plays. Damian Lillard wasn’t having a very good shooting game but kept pushing the ball towards mismatches, finishing with 8 assists. Robin Lopez enjoyed most of those passes, scoring 16 points on 7-of-10 from the field joining Aldridge with a double-double as well.
Not all opponents can make the Rockets look helpless in the post, but the Blazers managed to do it despite a bad shooting day from their starting backcourt. Lillard scored 14 points on 5-of-16 from the field, but that was still better than 9 points on 2-of-13 from the field from Arron Afflalo, who is going to have to speed up his adjustment period because the role he’s now in is a lot bigger than what it was initially meant to be. It’s not an excuse, it’s simply reality.