The Portland Trail Blazers jumped ahead of the Houston Rockets in game one of the opening round of the NBA playoffs, winning 122-120 in overtime. The first quarter was all Portland, as LaMarcus Aldridge dominated Houston on the offensive glass. Aldridge played an exceptional game, putting up 46 points and 18 rebounds before fouling out in overtime. While the Blazers’ lack of depth once again hurt them, they were able to overcome a fourth quarter deficit thanks to Aldridge and a fantastic game from Damian Lillard.
Chandler Parsons helped the Rockets stay close while the rest of the team shot poorly at the start. Parsons made several great plays and scored inside and outside throughout the game. James Harden, after a poor start to the game, finally got going around the middle of the third quarter, but missed potential game winning and game tying shots in the fourth quarter and overtime period, respectively. He ended up with 27 points, but needed 28 shots to get it. Aldridge dominated by scoring inside on offensive rebounds while the Rockets focused attention elsewhere, but he was not backed up by his teammates in the first half. Damian Lillard, a 20 points-per-game scorer during the regular season, put up 31 on 9/19 shooting. He also handed out five assists with only a single turnover.
Houston, a dominant home team during the regular season, will once again host Portland in game two. If the Trail Blazers want to head home with a chance to close the series in Portland they need to back up their best players with additional scoring. They made a few attempts to have Wesley Matthews attack the miserable defense of Harden, which did work for awhile, but Matthews just does not have to offensive skill set to be a dependable and consistent threat from anywhere but the three-point line. The entire Portland bench scored only seven points combined, something that has been a consistent problem for them even with the emergence of Thomas Robinson in the past few months. Mo Williams, who played 27 points, scored only three points on 1/6 shooting.
Lillard, who has the NBA records for three-pointers made as a rookie and over the first two years of a career, went 3/7 from behind the arc. Two of those four misses rattled in and out, and Lillard looked better each quarter of the game. It looked for awhile like Aldridge was going to be a one man show and the Rockets would pull away, but Lillard turned it on, scoring five of the Blazer’s 16 overtime points. He made the tying and go-ahead scores after Aldridge fouled out on a tremendously careless and unnecessary moving screen near half court with a minute left in overtime.
The Rockets can hang their hat on the fact that even shooting well below their season average they put up points, had the lead with a few seconds left, and were within a defensive rebound of winning the game. Their keys to the next game are simple on the surface, but execution will be key. Harden must shoot better or convert to a distributor, a role he actually handles well. Howard has to make free throws, or he cannot be on the floor at critical times. He missed eight attempts in the loss. Most importantly for the next game, they need a strategy to slow down Aldridge.
The problem is not that he made shots, it is that he got to attempt any shot he wanted, with 13 field goal attempts from right around the rim. Dwight Howard needs to stick with him and not chase blocked shots or rebounds, because Aldridge was left free way too frequently. Howard also needs to be able to defend Aldridge one-on-one, because when doubles started going towards Aldridge, Lillard took advantage of the holes in the defense. It was not a surprise to see one of the best offensive big men in the NBA score like Aldridge did, but the ease with which he did so was astounding.
Game two is once again going to come down to the stars of Portland. It does not seem like a safe bet that Aldridge will have the same monster night, but he will have to if the Blazers want to take a 2-0 series lead back home. If nothing else, they have taken home court advantage away from the Rockets and can consider the early part of the match-up a success. The next meeting is Wednesday evening. Look for Houston to bounce back offensively, though Lillard and Aldridge will probably still have their way against the Rockets’ defense. Unless the Blazers find some consistent scoring elsewhere, it will not be enough. This time, Harden comes through at the end and the Rockets will win another fast, high scoring affair.
Commentary by Brian Moore