Houston No Match for Surging Blazers
Don't look now, but this shorthanded, beaten-up team, that was said to be out to pasture, is gathering some serious momentum and is looking better with each passing game.
The storyline going into Sunday night's contest at the Rose Garden was how the Houston Rockets had reinvented themselves, and had gotten hot, following the loss of their all-star center. And that was all true. Since losing Yao, the Rockets had won 6 of 7, and 8 of 10, and were starting to make a move up the standings in the Western Conference. But, it's now the Trail Blazers, who are also looking reinvented, who are turning heads around the league.
After beating first-place Utah twice last week, Portland was looking to keep things rolling, and prove that they're a factor once again in the west. Still a very good defensive team, the Blazers have been out to show that along with stopping people, they're getting pretty good at the offensive end as well. If the Utah wins combined to serve as exhibit "A," then Sunday night quite possibly could have been exhibit "B."
The Rockets have been scoring points and beating good teams. But, were held to just 14 third-quarter points, 37 second-half points, and could only manage 85 total at the Rose Garden. In their last 10 games they had been averaging 110 points per. And, not only did Portland handcuff Houston's top offensive threats, but they put 100 points on their defense. They did this despite shooting just 43 percent from the field.
When the Blazers are defending and rebounding, they can get away with shooting in the low 40s, and still beat quality teams. What's amazing is they recorded 29 assists in the game, while still shooting a low percentage. Those are two numbers that don't normally go together.
As for the individuals, LaMarcus Aldridge had 25 points and 11 rebounds, and didn't even play in the fourth quarter. He also neutralized Luis Scola, who scored just 10 points in the game. Kyle Lowry was outplayed by Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews played Kevin Martin to a draw, and Nicolas Batum, who had 21 points, won his battle with Shane Battier.
One of the concerns going into the game was bench play. In the pregame show we asked the question: "Would Patty Mills be able to handle Aaron Brooks?" That would surely be a key matchup in the game. Mills not only held his own, but badly outplayed Brooks. Patty scored a career-high 14 points, and dished out 5 assists. He forced Brooks into 3 turnovers, and 3 of 10 shooting.
Even though it was not a great shooting night for Rudy Fernandez, he's doing so many other things other than just shooting the deep ball, you barely even notice when he's not hot. And, Dante Cunningham's little shooting slump? It's over. He had 10 points on 5 of 9 shooting, and continues to be a key piece of this puzzle.
Then there is Marcus Camby. Coming off a 20-rebound effort on Thursday against Utah, he grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked 3 shots against the Rockets. But, the eye-popping number in his line were the 8 assists he dished out. One of them came after he grabbed a rebound, led the fastbreak, and dished a perfect pass to Aldridge, who jammed it down.
Portland took a five-point lead to the half, a 16-point lead to the fourth, saw it swell as big as 23, and won the game by 15. No third or fourth-quarter slumps this time.
That's Portland's confidence you hear growing, and roles now appear very well defined. That's the funny thing about injuries, and the constant change that this team has experienced. It hardens you. When you are shorthanded and you hit that crossroads, you get busy winning or get busy losing.
No one in the Blazer locker room is doing any chest thumping over this recent stretch, however. After all, this team is only two games over.500, at 18-16. But, now that the schedule is starting to balance out as we head into this new month, there's definitely a new belief that's taken hold.
To listen to Nate McMillan's post-game comments, click here
We're now off on the road again, for a three-game trip. The Blazers play Dallas Tuesday, Houston on Wednesday, and at Minnesota on Friday. Nothing easy about that. But, in a month that has the team home for 9 games, and on the road for only 5, there is certainly the hope that a revival is underway.
Talk to you from Texas.