7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Rockets -5, Over/Under: 229
A pair of hopefuls out West who have each experienced radical change look to keep their respective heads above water, as the Portland Trail Blazers battle the Houston Rockets from Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. While this season is certainly shaping up to be one of the most unique in NBA history following the shortest Offseason in the history of professional sports within this country, the 2020-2021 campaign appears to be deja vu for the Trail Blazers (9-7, 5th in Western Conference), who have once again been beset by major injuries early on. Last season, Portland was forced to survive the first four months of the season without the services of (Center) Jusuf Nurkic (9.8 PTS, 48.5% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.0 PER), (Forward) Zach Collins, and (Swingman) Rodney Hood (3.5 PTS, 33.9% FG, 28.0% 3FG, 1.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 5.6 PER), with only Nurkic returning to the fold following rehab form a gruesome broken leg. However, (All-NBA Guard) Damian Lillard (28.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 7.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 25.5 PER) carried them throughout these trials, with his team eventually returning to health as the Association got back down to business following the four-month shutdown due to COVID-19. Terry Stotts’ charges would take full advantage of their opportunity, forcing their way into the Playoffs via the Play-In Tournament, eventually running out of gas in five games against the eventual NBA Champions, Los Angeles Lakers, in the First Round. With that in mind, we got a glimpse at what this team could do at full strength, which is why coming into this season there was a lot of optimism regarding the Blazers, who some picked to settle into that 3-to-5 range in the Western Conference. Like many teams though, their performance thus far has been very much a mixed bag, with the loss of a pair of stalwarts threatening to derail their campaign after just sixteen games. Nurkic broke his right wrist two weeks ago and will reportedly be out of action for at least eight weeks, while (Guard) C.J. McCollum (26.7 PTS, 47.3% FG, 44.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 26.3 PER) suffered a broken bone in his left foot just four days later and will be re-evaluated in a month’s time. Needless to say, this is a major blow to a team that was already without Collins (who has yet to play this season), and allowed (Center) Hassan Whiteside to leave in Free Agency after providing cover for Nurkic last year; the towering Bosnian international is a load to deal with in the paint, and is the team’s only real deterrent around the rim. However, the absence of McCollum is the biggest problem at the moment, for the 29-year old was in the midst of a stellar campaign in which he appeared well on his way towards earning his first All-Star nod averaging career-bests in a slew of categories including points (26.7 PTS), three-point percentage (44.1%), two-point percentage (51.3%), assists (5.0), and steals (1.3). All this means for the Blazers is that Lillard must once again carry them through hard times, just as he did last season; the five-time All-Star was voted MVP of the Bubble, in which he posted a whopping 37.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 9.6 assists per game as Portland went 6-2 in the seeding games. Since his backcourt mate succumbed to injury, he’s averaged 34.0 points on 45.9% shooting from the field, including 36.4% from three, along with 5.3 rebounds, and 7.8 assists over the last four games, which his side have split 2-2.
“Our attention to detail was poor. Our first-half defense was pathetic, there’s no excuse for that.”Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers Head Coach, on his team’s performance in Monday’s loss
When we last saw the Trail Blazers, they couldn’t complete the rally in a 125-122 loss at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night. After being outscored 34-24 in the First Quarter, the hosts slowly clawed their way back into the contest, as Lillard nailed a pair of threes to close the gap in the final period of play, but they simply couldn’t overcome their own deficiencies on the defensive end of the court. Needless to say, Portland has struggled mightily on defense this season, and this current rash of injuries haven’t that at all; Stotts’ troops have allowed 116.2 points per game (26th Overall) on 47.2% shooting from the field (24th Overall), including 37.0% from beyond the arc (19th Overall), along with 47.1 rebounds (26th Overall) and 25.5 assists (23rd Overall), while forcing just 13.6 turnovers (24th Overall), and relinquishing a dismal Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio of .226 (27th Overall). These flaws were on display against Oklahoma City, who shot a scorching 51.2% overall, including a whopping 18-of-40 from downtown (45.0%), and attempted thirty-five free-throws despite making just twenty-one (60.0%), which is how the home side remained in contention. In contrast, the Blazers shot 46.9% from the field, including 14-of-41 from three (34.1%), with four different players scoring over twenty points, led by Lillard and Anfernee Simons (6.8 PTS, 40.8% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 1.5 REB, 0.7 AST, 12.5 PER), who had twenty-six points apiece, with the former struggling on 8-of-22 shooting (36.4%), including 3-of-12 from deep (25.0%), though the latter had no such issues on 10-of-17 shooting (58.8%), including 6-of-10 from three (60.0%) in 29:23 off of the bench. Carmelo Anthony (12.8 PTS, 39.1% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 13.7 PER) and Gary Trent (11.6 PTS, 43.5% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 11.2 PER) each added twenty-two points in the defeat, while Enes Kanter (10.1 PTS, 61.8% FG, 10.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 BLK, 25.8 PER), now in his second stint with the franchise, totaled thirteen points and a season-high twenty-three rebounds. In the second game of a back-to-back, Stotts understandably sat the aforementioned Hood, who was a late scratch due to tightness in his thigh, but (veteran swingman) Robert Covington (6.5 PTS, 30.3% FG 27.8% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 6.5 PER) missed the affair after suffering a concussion in Sunday’s narrow 116-113 victory over the New York Knicks. Coming into this meeting with the Rockets, neither player is expected see action, with each labeled as Day-to-Day. This matchup will mark the second meeting between these teams, with Portland winning an overtime thriller back on December 26th, which must seem like a lifetime ago when you consider who was on the hardwood for both teams; McCollum, Nurkic, Covington, and Hood all participated in that contest, with McCollum pouring in a season-high forty-four points on 17-of-30 shooting (56.7%), including 9-of-16 from long-range (56.3%).
Meanwhile, as difficult of a stretch that lies ahead for their opponent, the Rockets (7-9, 12th in Western Conference) have endured all manner of dilemma through the early stages of the 2020-2021 season, remaking themselves on all three levels of their organization. Following last year’s disappointing defeat to the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals, Houston parted ways with (General Manager) Daryl Morey and (Head Coach) Mike D’Antoni, signifying the end of their five-year run of success which brought them so close to the NBA Finals, but ultimately without any hardware. With the departure of those two pillars of the franchise, there was a sense that the era of small ball led by annual scoring champion and 2017-2018 MVP, James Harden (24.8 PTS, 44.4% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 10.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.8 BLK, 23.4 PER) had come to an end. To his credit, the seven-time All-NBA Guard saw the writing on the wall, and spent the brief Offseason doing everything within his power to force the club to trade him, abstaining from team activities, ignoring the newly-appointed Coaching Staff led by Stephen Silas, and running afoul of the Association’s ever-changing COVID/Safety Protocols. These antics only increased following the blockbuster trade of (former MVP) Russell Westbrook, who was packaged to the nation’s capital in exchange for the Washington Wizards’ John Wall (17.9 PTS, 44.2% FG, 26.8% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.8 BLK, 16.3 PER), who had missed most of the previous two seasons rehabbing from a torn Achilles. After finally showing up out of shape, the bearded one would participate in just eight games before publicly criticizing his new teammates, which prompted a massive four-team trade with the Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, and Cleveland Cavaliers, sending Harden to the Big Apple, which was his preferred destination all along. Simply put, trading a superstar is never ideal, but the Rockets received quite the haul in return, acquiring a war chest of draft picks (seven in total) including the right to swap First Rounders with the Nets for the next four years. As far as actual personnel, Houston welcomed (All-Star Guard) Victor Oladipo (21.8 PTS, 37.8% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.5 STL, 12.2 PER) from the Pacers, providing some sorely-needed roster flexibility moving forward, with the 28-year old’s contract set to expire after the conclusion of this season. Needless to say, this is quite a way to start your first Head Coaching job if your Silas, who has taken the high road throughout this entire saga. The 48-year old is the son of longtime coach, Paul Silas, and had spent the previous two seasons as a member of Rick Carlisle’s staff with the Dallas Mavericks, credited with the evolution of their historically efficient offense last year led by Luka Doncic. Now that the drama has subsided and he has finally been able to put together a proper rotation consisting of players that actually want to be in Houston, the Rockets are starting to show flashes of what they can be; winners of three straight contests, they have hammered the opposition by an average margin of 15.0 points, averaging 114.3 points per game on 45.0% shooting from the field, including 36.5% from beyond the arc, while relegating their opponents to a mere 99.3 points on 40.6% shooting overall, including 30.1% from downtown, outrebounding them by 2.3 boards a night and yielding just 17.3 assists.
“I just feel like the organization thought I was done, no matter how much hard work I put in over the summer. They came and watched me. I thought they thought I was done. That’s why I came out here and did what I did.”John Wall on facing his former team, the Washington Wizards, following his trade
When we last saw the Rockets, it was a reunion that got a little chippy as they rolled over the struggling Wizards, 107-88 on Tuesday night. Of course, this was a perfect opportunity to revisit the aforementioned Westbrook/Wall trade and how each player has acquainted themselves with their new team. Wall, a five-time All-Star and former No. One Overall Pick (2010) had spent the previous nine years with the Wizards, where his massive contract and serious injury had made him an albatross for the franchise. However, they managed to move him nonetheless in favor of Westbrook, who despite being healthier has not been able to make Washington a more successful team, as they languish in last place in the Eastern Conference. In this particular matchup, Wall was clearly the victor in totaling twenty-four points, a pair of rebounds, five assists, and a steal in comparison to Westbrook’s nineteen points, eleven rebounds, and seven assists, though the big story was the confrontation between the two Point Guards which saw both earn a technical foul from the referee. In the end, neither team shot particularly well overall, with the hosts owning an advantage on 42.0% shooting from the field, including 12-of-34 from beyond the arc (32.4%), while the visitors could muster just 39.3% shooting overall, including 5-of-26 from downtown (19.2%), which proved to be the big difference (Minus-21). Silas was no doubt happy to see his side continue their solid play on the defensive end of the hardwood, where they turned twenty-one Wizards turnovers in twenty-four points. In addition to Wall’s exploits, (sharpshooting Guard) Eric Gordon (18.0 PTS, 46.2% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.9 PER) and the aforementioned Oladipo each finished with twenty points apiece, while (All-Star Center) DeMarcus Cousins (8.8 PTS, 34.0% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 15.2 PER) added nineteen points, eleven rebounds, and five steals in the win. A collegiate teammate of Wall’s at Kentucky, the 30-year old has struggled with injuries over the past three seasons, and is now on his fourth team in that period of time. As has been the case with Wall, Silas has had to manage Cousins’ minutes in the early goings of this season, but as he settles into his role and gets back into optimal conditioning, his addition could prove to a major development for the franchise.