The Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers played to the prevailing narrative for the bulk of the first three quarters in Thursday night's game at Moda Center. The surging Blazers, sixth in the West and in the midst of a six-game winning streak, rode balanced scoring and superior energy to a 21-point lead several minutes into the third quarter and looked well on their way to a commanding win that would cement their position as a solid playoff participant. Meanwhile, the reeling Rockets appeared set to fall for the fifth time in six games, which would put them two games under .500 and out of the playoff picture for at least one more day.
Those assumptions were erased within a few minutes late in the third quarter. Down 89-75 with 2:17 remaining in the period, the Rockets saw James Harden score 11 points before the buzzer to cut the margin to seven. Houston then continued to dominate in the fourth, taking the period 33-12 to finish the contest on a 44-16 run. They left Portland with a stunning 119-105 win that, in combination with the Utah Jazz's 96-78 home loss to the San Antonio Spurs, puts them back into the playoffs at eighth in the West.
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Harden was the obvious hero, scoring 34 of his game-high 46 points (16-of-26 FG, 4-of-9 3FG, 10-of-12 FT) while never sitting in the second half. He did everything the team could have asked of him offensively, regularly getting to the hoop and confounding the Blazers defense possession after possession.
Otherwise, the Rockets thrived by playing similarly to their Harden-less comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of their playoff series last May. Trevor Ariza shot just 1-of-10 from the field in his 41 minutes but kickstarted the defense when he moved onto excellent backcourt scorers Damian Lillard (6-of-20 FG) and C.J. McCollum (9-of-19 FG), finishing with five steals and many other frustrations for the Blazers. Plus, bench scorers Jason Terry (11 points on 4-of-8 FG) and Corey Brewer (10 points on 3-of-4 FG) brought energy and made big impacts in transition to ensure that Houston would not shy away from the fast-paced offense that often serves them best.
The Blazers deserve some credit for the comeback, too, because they failed to reassert themselves as the visitors seized control. There's no great shame in it — far more established teams have lost big leads to these same Rockets — but the collapse did serve as a reminder that this young team still has a lot to prove. Even typically unassailable head coach Terry Stotts can be criticized for failing to force Dwight Howard (19 points on 8-of-10 FG and 3-of-12 FT) to the line until very late in the fourth quarter.
The loss will also sting the Blazers because they're about to start a challenging six-game, nine-day road trip vs. the East, with five of those contests coming against teams at or over .500. Portland has struggled on the road this season (11-16) and could very well have slid down the West standings by the time they return home. The good news is that, as Jason Quick of CSNNW.com wrote this week, they have learned from their mistakes before this season.
In fact, it's much easier to trust that the Blazers will rebound from the loss than it is to believe that the Rockets will build on an impressive win. Houston's season has been littered with nice victories followed by confusing losses. To give just one example, they built on a gritty Christmas win over the San Antonio Spurs with four straight losses, proving that beating a contender can serve as the prelude to a period of malaise. Their defensive effort comes and goes, and their offensive flow may cease just as easily as it starts.
Perhaps this latest win will be the one that makes everything better. Saturday's home date with the Spurs will be a serious challenge, but it's not crazy to imagine the Rockets doing well against a team near the end of its annual rodeo road trip. Then again, can we really trust the Rockets to show up Monday at Milwaukee? Or back home Wednesday vs. Anthony Davis and the Pelicans?
After nearly 60 games of inconsistency, the onus is on Houston to prove it can find prolonged success. Until they do, an impressive victory is nothing more than a one-game winning streak.
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