James Harden, Rockets Fall Flat vs. Blazers to End Road Trip

Michael Shapiro

So much for momentum. 

The Rockets seized perhaps their best win of the season without James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Utah on Monday, but Houston couldn't bring the same energy in Portland on Wednesday to close a four-game road trip. James Harden's shooting struggles continued, Damian Lillard controlled the contest, and Houston will limp home losing seven of its last 11 after a 125-112 defeat. The Rockets' start to 2020 has been anything but smooth. 

Here are three takeaways from Houston's double-digit defeat as it fell to 29–18. 

Harden's Funk Continues

Wednesday night provided an opportunity for James Harden to get back on track after missing both legs of Houston's back-to-back due to a thigh injury. Harden exited Friday's win in Minnesota shooting just 22.3% from three in his last nine games, suffering through one of the worst stretches of his Houston career. But Harden couldn't bust out of his slump in Portland. Wednesday was the same old story for Harden in 2020.

The NBA's leading scorer finished Wednesday night with 18 points on 18 shots, finishing an abysmal 2-8 from three. And it wasn't just the shooting figures that plagued Harden against Portland. Harden looked a step slow for significant stretches, loafing around in spurts when he didn't have the ball. Harden turned the ball over six times; he made five field goals. The defensive effort was lacking in transition, and Harden slid under a Portland screen in the fourth quarter as Lillard buried his last of six threes. It's hard to imagine Houston returning to its winning ways as long as Harden continues to struggle to such a degree.

Lillard Lights Up Houston

Damian Lillard combined for 158 points in his past three games before Wednesday night, and Blazers' win over Houston featured another standout performance from the four-time All-Star. Lillard posted his first career triple-double in Portland on Wednesday, tallying 36 points along with six threes. 

Lillard was an absolute dynamo against the Rockets. He split traps and beat pairs of defenders around the edge. Lillard finished at the tin gracefully, and he launched absolute bombs from behind the arc. They don't call him Logo Lillard for nothing. Westbrook may have experienced flashbacks to the 2019 playoffs at some point on Wednesday night. Lillard continues to get the upper hand on Houston's point guard in their ongoing rivalry.

Westbrook certainly held his ground offensively despite Lillard's eruption. The former Thunder star led all scorers with 39 points, punishing Portland's smaller guards on a consistent stream of drives to the rim. Westbrook even hit his first three in five games, turning in a relatively efficient performance with a 16-29 mark from the field. Westbrook continues to find his groove after a shaky start. But it won't be enough if Harden can't find his MVP form. 

Rockets Bullied Inside

Houston wasn't forced to go small-ball on Wednesday as it was against Utah, entering the matchup in Portland with starting center Clint Capela back in the lineup. But the Rockets were still bullied inside despite their added paint presence. 

Portland center Hassan Whiteside scored 15 points and added five blocks on Wednesday, and he led all players with a plus-18 in 28 minutes. Whiteside's impressive stat line matched his strong play. He was a menace in the lane, pinning Houston shots off the backboard throughout the contest. P.J. Tucker got into early foul trouble battling with Whiteside, and Capela looked relatively meek compared to Portland's behemoth. The Blazers won the rebounding battle by 11 and the points-in-the-paint battle by nine. That's not a winning formula for Capela and Co. as we turn to the end of January. 

Up Next: vs. Dallas on Friday

The Rockets will finally return home on Friday after over a week on the road, but Houston has no cupcake on the schedule in its return to the Toyota Center. Luka Doncic and the Mavericks come to town when the Rockets return home, looking to win their second straight in Houston. 

Dallas and Houston sit tied for sixth in the Western Conference at 29–18 following the Rockets' loss in Portland. Tip-off from the Toyota Center is slated for 6:30 p.m. CT. 

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