James Harden Slumps, Rockets Sluggish in Loss to Blazers

Michael Shapiro

Back-to-back losses for the first time since November spurred a team meeting for the Rockets on Wednesday. Houston head coach Mike D'Antoni didn't address the media for nearly a half hour after the Rockets' 117-107 loss to the Blazers, and Houston spent much of its time in the locker room postgame lamenting the team's lack of effort. Perhaps the Rockets’ pair of defeats is due to fatigue. Maybe the slide is a natural dip over the course of 82 games. Whatever the reason, D'Antoni and Co. are concerned, searching for answers as the Rockets approach a difficult portion of their schedule.

Here are three takeaways from Houston's loss as it fell to 26–14 on the season. 

Harden Sluggish Throughout

The second night of a back-to-back hit James Harden hard on Wednesday as the NBA's scoring leader scored a season-low 13 points on 3-13 shooting. Harden appeared sluggish throughout Houston's loss, taking a significant chunk of possessions off either behind the play or on the wing. The lift on Harden's jump shot was non-existent. He was deterred by Hassan Whiteside numerous times at the tin. Fatigue has set in for the 2017-18 MVP.  

Portland took the ball out of Harden's hands for portions of Wednesday's contest, throwing traps at him in spurts in the half court. The coverage didn't quite match the extreme looks Harden received against Denver and Toronto earlier this season, but Portland did manage to limit Harden's isolations beyond the arc. Pair the Blazers' strong scheme with Harden's fatigue, and a season-worst night was in order. 

Westbrook Keeps Rockets Afloat

Westbrook rested on Tuesday night as Harden carried the load in Memphis, and Houston's point guard was energized from the opening tip against Portland. The eight-time All-Star was perhaps the lone Rocket with requisite energy on Wednesday, finishing the night with 31 points on 11-22 shooting. Add in 12 assists and 11 rebounds, and Westbrook secured his 145th career triple-double. Houston's back-to-back plan for Westbrook has paid dividends at the season's midway point. 

Harden's supporting cast outside of Westbrook struggled in the loss to Portland. P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers and Danuel House combined to make just 4 of 15 shots, and Westbrook was the only Rockets player to finish with a positive plus-minus. Isaiah Hartenstein was yanked after one minute. Ben McLemore salvaged his evening with a pair of late threes. Those outside of Houston's dynamic duo have struggled of late. 

Wednesday's loss continued Westbrook's strong scoring stretch. He's averaging 27.6 points per game in his last ten contests, shooting 44.3% from the field. Westbrook's three-point shot is a liability, and his postseason inefficiency remains a concern. But it's hard to find a qualm with Westbrook's performance of late, especially as he attempted to carry a limping Rockets squad on Wednesday. 

"[We have to] play hard," Westbrook said postgame. "Everything else will fall in line. Enough talent, enough experience. ...We just gotta play hard every single night.”

Welcome Back, Carmelo

Perhaps Wednesday night didn't qualify as a revenge game for Carmelo Anthony after just 10 games with the Rockets last season, but Anthony certainly played with an edge in Portland's victory. The former scoring champion turned back the clock against Houston, scoring 18 points on 7-10 shooting. And Anthony wasn't the only Blazer with a strong offensive night. Damian Lillard finished with 25 points and C.J. McCollum scored 24, taking full advantage of Houston's lackluster effort. The Blazers had plenty of firepower against a banged-up Rockets' squad.

"A lot of guys have physical issues that they're fighting through, and sometimes that takes you away from the collective spirit," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni postgame. "They're focused on themselves and it does create a bit of whatever. ...We'll regather and regroup and get back on Saturday and have a great game. "

Portland boasts one of the league's most dangerous crop of scorers, though there are few weak attacks rolling through Houston in the coming weeks. The Rockets will have to face each of the Lakers, Nuggets and Jazz twice before the All-Star Game, and they have matchups with Boston and New Orleans (likely with Zion Williamson). The Rockets will need to get their defensive woes cleaned up quickly to avoid a slide in the Western Conference standings. 

Up Next: vs. Lakers on Saturday

The road doesn't get any easier for Harden and Co. after back-to-back losses. The Rockets will host the Lakers at the Toyota Center on Saturday night, marking the first of Houston's three straight games against Western Conference playoff teams. Los Angeles has been the toast of the West through the season's first half, entering Wednesday night at 33–8. Anthony Davis didn't play for the Lakers against Orlando on Wednesday, and his status for Saturday night has not been announced. 

Tip-off from the Toyota Center is slated for 7:30 p.m. CT.  


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