The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets 112-105 on Wednesday to take a 2-0 series lead. Game 3 is set for Portland's Moda Center on Friday.
• LaMarcus Aldridge did it again. One of the most persistent criticisms of LaMarcus Aldridge during his eight-year career has been that he over-relies on his mid-range jumper at the expense of his low-post game. His 6-foot-11, long-armed frame and athletic tools make him a tough cover on the block, but he has never apologized for his perimeter approach, whether he's lining up a straight-on look from the elbow or spinning into a baseline turnaround.
After scoring 46 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in Game 1, Aldridge nearly matched the feat in Game 2, pouring in a game-high 43 points (on 18-for-28 shooting) and grabbing eight rebounds. In doing so, he became the first player since then-Cavaliers forward LeBron James to score 40+ points in consecutive playoff games (May 2009), and Elias Sports notes that he joins Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady as the only players to go for 40+ points in Games 1 and 2 on the road. Aldridge now holds the No. 1 spot (Game 1) and No. 3 spot (Game 2) on the Blazers' all-time postseason scoring list, and he is the only player in franchise history to top 40 points in two different playoff games.
"These two games here are as well as I've seen him play," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, and the entire world nodded in agreement.
It must be noted that Game 2 was not at all a straightforward sequel. In fact, Aldridge sniped the Rockets' defense from the mid-range on Wednesday -- doing what he does most comfortably -- after doing most of his damage in the post in Game 1. It takes a special type of player to score 40+ points in back-to-back games, but it takes an almost unthinkable level of versatility to do it in such different ways.
"Everybody had made so much chaos over how they were going to guard me," Aldridge said. "I went into the game trying to feel it out. Ended up finding my rhythm. Coach did a great job of moving me around early. They were trying to double me a little bit early, so I thought coach putting me around the floor was great. ... I made tough shots. ... I don't think too much was easy tonight."
A quick side-by-side of Aldridge's shot charts from Game 1 (left) and Game 2 (right) illustrates his ability to influence a game from either the rim or the long two fringes.
Simply put, this was a level of scorching that makes coaches and defenders throw up their arms in a "What can you do?" manner.
"He killed us," James Harden said.
It's hard to successfully deny Aldridge, or any player, the ball that far from the hoop without creating gaps elsewhere, and his size gives him the ability to shoot over a defender, or a double-team, making it difficult to rush him. Throughout the 2013-14 regular season, Aldridge studied defensive coverages on an iPad, so he's prepared to make the right reads if teams totally sell out on him. Here, he simply needed to bomb away over the top of helpless defenders.
"We tried changing it up tonight," Rockets coach Kevin McHale lamented. "The first game he got in the paint and wore us out. Tonight he was picking and popping and moving. We were having a hard time running people at him. We were trying to get the ball out of his hands."
Those efforts were in vain, and Houston now finds itself going to Portland down 2-0 in a series it was favored to win. Common sense dictates that Aldridge will be hard-pressed to stay this hot, but the Rockets understand that the Blazers did not achieve their place among the league's offenses by being a one-weapon attack. Quite the opposite, in fact, and Portland has a number of auxiliary options (Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez) who are all capable of contributing more offensively than they've shown in the series to date, and the Blazers' outside shooting (17-for-50 so far through two games) has yet to really get on track.
Superstar players demand extra attention and adjustments, and Aldridge has reached that point in this series. Wherever he begins possessions -- in the post or near the arc -- Houston has no choice but to make him priority number one. But McHale and his staff are now in the unenviable position of preparing for Game 3 knowing they need to find an answer for Aldridge while also understanding that they could be faced with other, as-yet-unseen threats.
• Harmful James Harden. The leading "goat" of the 2014 playoffs so far is Rockets guard James Harden, who entered the postseason with the chance to lay claim to the title of "The NBA's best shooting guard." Instead, he has been damaging to Houston's efforts in every possible way.
Harden's defensive lapses are so frequent and pronounced that they almost go without saying, even when Wesley Matthews is leaking out after a made free throw and waltzing to the rim for an easy layup in the final minute of a playoff game. On that particular play, which pushed Portland's lead to six with just 33 seconds remaining, McHale didn't pin the blame specifically on Harden, instead saying that it was a trap gone wrong.
The bigger issue for the Rockets is that Harden is not impacting the game positively on the offensive end. Harden boasted a 23.5 Player Efficiency Rating during the regular season, tops among all two guards, but he has now put up arguably the two most damaging offensive performances during the 2014 playoffs. Harden is the only player on any of the 16 playoff teams to shoot 19 or more shots in a game and make less than 33 percent of them, and he's done it in both Game 1 and Game 2.
Worst high-volume shooting performances (min. 19 attempts) in 2014 playoffs
- James Harden, Rockets (Game 1): 27 points on 8-for-28 (28.6%), four turnovers
- James Harden, Rockets (Game 2): 18 points on 6-for-19 (31.6%), six turnovers
- Zach Randolph, Grizzlies (Game 1): 21 points on 7-for-21 shooting (33.3%), one turnover
- Klay Thompson, Warriors (Game 1): 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting (35%), four turnovers
"I'm not worried about my offense," Harden said, which is perhaps equal parts comforting and confounding to Rockets fans.
Unfortunately, Harden has compounded his shooting struggles with sloppy play. Harden turned the ball over twice in the final two minutes of Game 2, stunting Houston's ability to mount a real rally. Credit Portland's defense -- and Wesley Matthews in particular -- for hounding him, but some of Harden's miscues were so careless that he appeared unprepared for the magnitude of the moment.
To make matters even worse, Harden was able to get to the stripe just four times on Wednesday. He often attacked a set defense off the dribble, but the whistles just weren't there when he turned the corner or looked for contact in the paint. McHale pointed to his team's 16 assists as an indicator that the ball wasn't moving well enough, and he said he expects Harden's play to pick up if Houston's ball movement and pace improve.
"We can't hold [the ball]," McHale said. "James will get it going if we get going. When we're up and down, he's at his best."
An all-around offensive weapon who can shoot from range, lives on the foul line and gets to the rim, Harden is usually the motor behind Houston's attack. Through two games, he's been a drag-causing anchor, and the Rockets are now staring at a "get him going, or else" proposition down 2-0 and headed on the road.
"Game 3 is our season," Harden confirmed.
• Dwight Howard's night goes for naught. It's been years since Dwight Howard made basketball look as effortless as he did in the first half of Game 2. Indeed, he topped 30 points for the first time in the playoffs in more than three years (April 19, 2011 for the Magic against the Hawks).
Howard finished with a team-high 32 points (on 13-for-22 shooting), 14 rebounds and four blocks, with 25 points (on 11-for-17 shooting) coming before halftime. There were so many things to like: his deft and in-control spins, his first-step burst, his insistence on exploiting his mismatch until Portland adjusted, his thunderous finishes in the basket area. Matching his physical advantages with polish hasn't always been Howard's strongest suit, but here he was living his Hakeem Olajuwon Understudy dream.
His impact tapered significantly in the second half and Houston wasn't able to shift into a more balanced approach. Chandler Parsons did his best to generate some momentum by regularly attacking off the dribble, but that type of one-on-one play isn't what has made the Rockets an excellent offense this season. Limited bench contributions (just 13 points total from the reserves, including a 1-for-5 night from Jeremy Lin) and 3-for-16 outside shooting ensured that Houston never found the second punch it needed after Howard's initial flurry.
Houston was 9-3 this season when Howard scored at least 25 points, a sign of how difficult they can be to beat when their franchise center really gets things going. To let such a strong outing go to waste, then, is surely cause for some hand-wringing.
"We can't go up there [to Portland] having any negative thoughts about anybody on our team," Howard said. "We have to be positive. That's when the guys who have been there before have to step up and do it."
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