Is there a secret to defending James Harden?
HOUSTON – As the Portland Trail Blazers walked off the court, leaving a sold out noiseless crowd in disbelief after just taking a commanding 2-0 series lead with a 112-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, they were greeted by some familiar faces in route to the locker room.
In the hallway, adjacent to their locker room, Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, GM Neil Olshey, Assistant GM Bill Branch and the entire coaching staff waited for every player to make their way back from the court. Each one was greeted with a round of applauds and words of encouragement.
“It was surprising to see,” Damian Lillard said after flirting with a triple-double of 18 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists. “That was pretty cool. It shows that they’re supporting us and appreciate what we’re doing.”
Once everybody entered the locker room, the message from the Trail Blazers’ brass was, “Congratulations. You’ve done a good job. But there’s more work to do,” Lillard recalled.
That’s a message LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum have been preaching ever since the regular season concluded. The focus, the attention to detail, the muted vibe is what you experience when you’re in the presence of this team prior to these playoff practices and games.
After that Game 1 win on Sunday, it would have been easy for Portland to settle for the split on the road before heading back home. Turns out, they were hungrier after that win, and the Rockets look like a thick, juicy T-bone steak with all the fixings.
“We were going into Game 2 hungry like we went into Game 1,” Matthews said. “There’s a certain mood on this team that I like. You don’t hear a sound before these games. Players are locked in. You can see it for yourself.”
On Tuesday, Lillard sat in his hotel room alone, watching some playoff action. He sent out a few text messages to teammates, urging them to observe what Washington is doing to Chicago, a team that started the series on the road and took the first two games in which erased the Bulls’ homecourt advantage.
He wanted them to know that they could do the same exact thing.
“I text some guys and everybody was already watching,” he said. “Everybody saw the same thing. It was kind of unspoken. Everybody understood what could happen and what can happen if we approached this game with the right mindset.”
They brought it, and so did LaMarcus Aldridge for the second consecutive game. He supplied a game-high 43 points to go with eight rebounds and three blocks. He became the first player to have back-to-back 40-point games in the playoff since LeBron James did it May 24, 26 in 2009.
It didn’t matter who the Rockets put in front of him. That ball was going up and it was going in. If you thought his Game 1 performance was a fluke, think again.
“I’ve seen him have a fantastic season. That’s no question,” Head Coach Terry Stotts said, but these two games here are as well as I’ve seen him play. He’s very determined, he’s focused, and he’s leading this team.”
Kevin McHale made very little adjustments on the defensive end despite two whole days to prepare. Portland scored at will. Dwight Howard is stuck trying to clean up the broken assignments of his teammates. That falls on McHale, who is focusing more on offense rather than the area that’s hurting them most.
Plain and simple, Terry Stotts is kicking his ass.
James Harden is 14-for-47 from the field in this series. Matthews is on him like a fly. No look is clean and rarely is he in transition, where he thrives. Matthews is making him work on the offensive end, tiring Harden out. He credits that Golden State game in the second to last game of the regular season for grooming him for this moment.
“I think it started off with the Stephen Curry matchup,” Matthews said. “Just really getting back. I always got an edge, always got a chip, always want to defend but I’m really taking everything personal now.”
The bench stepped up with Dorell Wright and Mo Williams accounting for 28 of the bench’s 30 points, 21 points up from Game 1’s production.
“We need our bench to play well and it doesn’t always mean scoring,” Stotts said. “…It’s good to get some points off the bench but we’ll take them wherever we can.”
And when the team takes the court for Game 3 in Portland on Friday, players expect the fans to orchestrate controlled chaos, even rowdier that the Houston gathering. Batum, and others, are looking forward to it.
“They’re going to be crazy,” Batum said. “They’re crazy. In a good way, though. And now that we’re up 2-0, those guys are going to be insane. We all know that.
“We want them to be crazy. Be insane. Be who you are. Be Rip City.”