10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Rockets -1.5, Over/Under: 236.5
Western Playoff hopefuls meet tonight in the Pacific Northwest, as the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazer renew acquaintances in a key matchup from Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. Losers of six of their last nine games, the Rockets (29-17, 5th in Western Conference) are looking to get healthy before the All-Star Break and stop the bleeding as they have spent much of the past two weeks sliding down the pecking order out West. That’s what happens when you’re missing your two brightest stars, in this case James Harden (36.1 PTS, 43.9% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 7.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 29.4 PER) and Russell Westbrook (26.0 PTS, 45.2% FG, 23.4% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 7.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.4 PER). Of course, Houston acquired the latter in a shocking trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder back in the Summer, as Head Coach, Mike D’Antoni, and General Manager, Daryl Morey, looked to shake up a roster that met a bitter end in each of the last two Playoffs. Granted, the Golden State Warriors had a lot to do with that, but it’s clear that D’Antoni and Morey felt that something needed to change, and pairing the explosive Westbrook with the prolific Harden seemed like a better idea than simply standing pat. To their credit, the two former teammates haven’t had that much difficulty in rekindling the chemistry of their earlier days in the league, but it is very debatable as to whether or not that Rockets are any better off in their current incarnation. The Offense is clearly still prolific; Houston ranks second in the league in Points (118.7), Three-Point Field Goals (15.0), and Two-Point Field Goal Percentage (55.3%), while sitting atop their competition in Free-Throws Made (21.1) and Attempted (27.1). Interestingly, they’ve played at a much faster Pace than they did before Westbrook’s inclusion, averaging 103.7 Possessions per 48 Minutes (2nd Overall), but as a byproduct their Three-Point Efficiency has fallen considerably to 34.6% (24th Overall), which can also be attributed to the erstwhile Point Guard. The biggest issue that this team faces is that they have become overly reliant on the talents of those two All-Stars, with the numbers reflecting their individual strengths and weaknesses. D’Antoni would love to add some quality depth, but in the meantime what is he expected to do without both players in the lineup? Well, after Monday Night’s 126-117 victory on the road at red-hot Utah, it may appear the best course of action is to just stay the course. With Harden (Bruised Thigh) and Westbrook (Rest) unavailable due to respective ailments, the rest of the Rockets stepped up, particularly veteran Shooting Guard Eric Gordon (16.3 PTS, 38.4% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 11.3 PER), who exploded for a career-high Fifty Points, becoming the first player other than Harden to reach that threshold for Houston since Hakeem Olajuwon did so back in 1996. While he’s had a frustratingly inconsistent career, the 31-Year Old is capable of putting together performances like this when he gets into the zone, which is precisely what happened in Salt Lake City. Gordon shot a blistering 14-of-22 from the field (63.6%), including 6-of-11 from beyond the arc (54.5%), and a staggering 16-of-20 from the Free-Throw Line (80.0%). A Restricted Free Agent back in the Offseason, he was slow to come back following knee surgery (he missed 23 Games), but is beginning to repay the club for resigning him; in the past thirteen contests, he’s averaging 20.0 Points per Game. With Starting Center, Clint Capela (14.2 PTS, 62.8% FG, 13.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.9 BLK, 21.0 PER), also out with a bruised heel, D’Antoni was forced to go small for long stretches of action, which really worked against the much larger Jazz, who were ill-equipped to keep them out of the Paint. However, Gordon wasn’t the only member of the Supporting Cast to show out, as Danuel House (10.3 PTS, 42.5% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 10.8 PER) and Austin Rivers (8.4 PTS, 41.7% FG, 32.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.6 AST, 9.9 PER) dropped Twenty-One Points apiece, with the former adding Eleven Rebounds, and Five Steals. The affair was close until the visitors went on a 17-6 run towards the end of the Second Quarter, keyed by Gordon who totaled Fifteen Points in the period. Utah would draw no closer than 72-66 in the Third Quarter, with Houston immediately responding with a 15-6 jaunt to close out the stanza. D’Antoni had to have been satisfied with the performance is undermanned charges put together, for coming into the tilt, the Jazz had been the hottest team in the league, winning all but two of their previous twenty-one games. Heading into tonight’s meeting with Portland, Westbrook is expected to back in action, though Harden and Capela are listed as Game-Time Decisions.
Meanwhile, After advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Trail Blazers (20-27, 10th in Western Conference) find themselves simply trying to get back to the Postseason, as injuries have utterly decimated what was already a thin roster to begin with. At the moment, Portland is Tenth in the West, 2.5 Games out of the Eighth Seed with the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs ahead of them in the Standings. Terry Stotts new that it was going to be difficult to reach the heights of last year’s Playoff Run, but he couldn’t have foresaw the litany of injuries that have ravaged his charges. Ironically, it all started late last term, when Starting Center, Jusuf Nurkic, suffered an ugly broken leg with just a month left in the Regular Season. The Bosnian was in the midst of his most productive campaign before that injury (15.6 PTS, 10.4 REB, 1.4 BLK, 23.4 PER), which has sidelined him through the entirety of this season, though he has finally begun practicing with limited activities. However, Nurkic’s absence though was expected, which is why the franchise went out and acquired the mercurial Hassan Whiteside (15.6 PTS, 59.8% FG, 14.0 REB, 1.2 AST, 3.0 BLK, 24.7 PER) in a massive 4-Team Trade, in an attempt to fill the void with another young defensive presence in the paint. While the 30-Year Old has played well this season, leading the league in Blocks (3.0), it has been the unforeseen losses of the likes of Zach Collins (9.0 PTS, 47.4% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 9.1 PER) and Rodney Hood (11.0 PTS, 50.6% FG, 49.3% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 12.3 PER) that have really left an impact on this team, with both players missing virtually all of this season, the former set to return in late March following shoulder surgery while the latter isn’t expected to come back until some point next season following a torn ACL. Without Nurkic and Collins, this is a team that is dangerously thin in the Frontcourt, while Hood’s absence has left them without much help on the perimeter, an issue only heightened by the absence of All-Star Shooting Guard, C.J. McCollum (21.6 PTS, 45.5% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.8 AST, 17.1 PER), who missed three games recently with a sprained ankle. Yes, the Blazers signed Carmelo Anthony (16.1 PTS, 43.5% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 13.3 PER), who had spent the previous season as proverbial outcast and was without a team until joining them back in late November, but even the 10-time All-Star’s presence hasn’t managed to keep them afloat. With all that said, it’s no wonder Portland has hit a rough patch, going 6-11 over the last seventeen games, with little more to rely upon than the heroics of All-Star Point Guard, Damian Lillard (28.8 PTS, 45.5% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 7.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.3 PER), who has been forced to carry them like never before. Fortunately for Stotts & Co., the 29-Year Old has never been better, averaging a career-high 28.8 Points per Game on 45.5% shooting from the field, while posting career-bests in a slew of other categories including Three-Point Field Goals (3.8), Free-Throws (7.0), and Assists (7.7) per Game, and PER (26.3). Furthermore, he’s been on utter FIRE over the last seven contests, averaging a whopping 40.1 Points on 51.2% shooting from the floor, including a staggering 47.1% from beyond the arc, along with 4.7 Rebounds, 8.6 Assists, and 1.1 Steals. In the last three games alone he’s totaled 158 Points, including Sixty-One in a 129-124 overtime victory against the Golden State Warriors, which wasn’t just a personal record but set the benchmark on Martin Luther King Day, and Fifty Points in Portland’s 139-129 win against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. It really needs to be stated how effective this guy is once he gets rolling, for once more he managed to be both prolific and efficient, shooting 14-of-23 from the field (60.9%), including 8-of-12 from downtown, all the while dishing out a healthy Thirteen Assists and committing only a single Turnover. The hosts received a boost with the return of McCollum, who added Twenty-Eight Points on 11-of-21 shooting (52.4%), while the aforementioned Whiteside and Anthony combined for Thirty-Five Points and Twenty-Two Rebounds. Stotts’ charges shot 54.4% from the floor, with the prime difference coming from the perimeter, where the Blazers knocked down a ridiculous 20-of-35 Treys (57.1%), outscoring the Pacers by a decisive Twenty-One Points. Tonight’s meeting with the Rockets marks their third such this season, with the two teams splitting their previous encounters; Portland went into Houston and bested them 117-107 just two weeks ago, a defensive battle which saw both sides shoot poorly from the field, with the visitors able to overcome that by getting to the Free-Throw Line, where they outscored the Rockets by Nine Points. Lillard and McCollum combined for Forty-Nine Points, while Whiteside and Anthony added Eighteen Points apiece with a total of Thirty Rebounds. Of course, Anthony briefly played for Houston before being unceremoniously discarded after just ten games with the club, spending the rest of the 2018-2019 term in exile. To his credit, the 35-Year Old has been an absolute asset for the depleted Blazers, fitting into Stotts’ isolation-heavy Offense far better than he did in previous stops with Oklahoma City and Houston, while even stepping into the role of Power Forward, which is something that despite excelling at has exhibited a reticence to perform.