Blazers just miss
In a nutshell, there was too much James Harden and too little Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
And with it, poof! The Trail Blazers' 13-game win streak was over.
Harden poured in 42 points — 21 in each half — and Houston held off every Portland surge in a 115-111 victory Tuesday night at Moda Center.
Lillard and McCollum, meanwhile, suffered through their least productive offensive game of the season, combining for 28 points on 9-for-29 shooting — 0 for 12 from 3-point range.
"We're not going to have every many games where neither one of them makes a 3," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "It's the way it was tonight."
Harden, meanwhile, put on an offensive clinic, making 13 of 25 shots from the field and 5 of 7 from 3-point range, including a pair of step-back shots from beyond the arc in the final four minutes with the game on the line.
"That's the best offensive player I've ever seen," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni gushed afterward. "(The Blazers) were running guys to him, and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3.
"The way he can pass, see the floor, (draw) fouls, (score on) layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he's shooting those step-back 3's. It's impossible to guard him."
Lillard rolled his eyes when D'Antoni's appraisal was relayed, but only a little.
"He's seen Michael Jordan," Lillard said. "That's a big statement. But (Harden) is a handful. He's a really good playmaker, can shoot the ball from the 3-point line, draw fouls. He handles the ball well. He's a really good offensive player. He's probably one of the best who ever played."
Houston (57-14) is on an even better roll than were the Blazers. The Rockets, who have the best record in the NBA, have won six in a row and 23 of their last 24. The Blazers took them to the closing seconds Tuesday night. The Rockets didn't have it in the bag until Chris Paul — who finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists with no turnovers in 32 minutes — sank a pair at the line with 1.3 ticks on the clock for the game's final points.
"James' step-backs go in, we win," D'Antoni said. "They come out, we lose. It's so close. (The Blazers) played great. I'm sure they're going to have a great run in the playoffs. They're one of the better teams in the league, without a doubt. They made it interesting tonight. They can beat anybody, any time."
It was an odd night for the Blazers (44-27), who lost for the first time since Feb. 11, and for only the second time in 20 home dates.
Lillard and McCollum came in averaging a combined 48.4 points. They didn't approach that figure Tuesday night.
Lillard had 20 points and six assists with one turnover in 36 minutes, and the All-Star point guard was 10 for 10 from the line. With 6-8 Trevor Ariza guarding him much of the way, Lillard made only 5 of 17 shots from the field and was 0 for 7 on 3-point attempts.
"I got some good looks," Lillard said. "Sometimes it just doesn't go. They had a lot of big bodies on me. When I got around guys, it was a crowded paint. I tried to make the right plays, but sometimes you have to figure out a way to stay aggressive and take shots. They didn't go in like I'd have liked them to, but you have to give credit to what they were able to do defensively.
"I just didn't shoot the ball well. It happens. Over the last two months, I've had a long stretch where the shots were going in and the game was going well. Eventually, you're going to have a tough one. I had a tough one tonight, but I can still have a somewhat productive game on a night when I struggled."
McCollum never got anything going, finishing with eight points on 4-for-15 shooting, including 0 for 5 from beyond the arc. It was his second-lowest scoring output of the season. McCollum had three assists and two rebounds in his 34 minutes.
"Credit their defense, but I had some pretty good looks," McCollum said. "I just didn't make them. I'd like to get some of them back. One was wide open. But their defense did a great job of loading up and making it difficult. Some other guys on the team played really well and kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win it down the stretch."
With Houston focusing its defense on Lillard and, to a lesser extent, McCollum, Portland's other starters enjoyed a banner game. Forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless and center Jusuf Nurkic combined for 60 points and 20 rebounds.
Harkless scored 17 points on 5-for-5 shooting, including 3 for 3 on 3-point shots. Nurkic had 21 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots, making 9 of 10 shots from the field in a stellar 27-minute show.
Aminu was Portland's best player on this night, though, scoring a team-high 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including 6 for 8 from 3-point range. He scored 16 points in the first quarter, knocking down four 3's as the Rockets left him open at the 3-point line. Aminu also had eight rebounds and four assists and had the chief defensive responsibility of chasing Harden for 94 feet on defense.
"The 'Chief' was outstanding," Stotts said. "Moe was outstanding. 'Nurk' finished around the basket. We found a way to score 111 points. 'Dame' and CJ did a good job finding people. It's a team game."
But when Lillard and McCollum both have a game like that on the same night, it's difficult for the Blazers to win, especially against a team like the Rockets.
"Our guards had an off night, but nothing crazy," Nurkic shrugged. "They're human, man. We believe in them. It's not going to happen two (games) in a row. We're still confident."
The Rockets won the game at the 3-point line, making 19 of 38 to Portland's 11 of 28. Take Lillard and McCollum out of the equation and the Blazers were 11 of 16.
"They're the No. 1 team in the league for a reason," Lillard said. "They find ways to win. They have a lot of shooters out there. James is going to be the MVP of the league. They played how we thought they would play. You have to make a few more plays and get a few more stops if you want to beat a team like that."
It was a good sign that while Lillard and McCollum struggled, nearly every other Blazer thrived in a playoff-type atmosphere.
"Over the last month and a half, two months, we've been a much better team because of what we're doing as a unit," Lillard said. "Everybody has been locked in. Everybody has been contributing. They've done it consistently."
Portland remains on solid ground in its bid to claim the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoff race behind Houston and Golden State. Oklahoma City (43-30) is two games behind Portland, with the Blazers holding the tiebreaker. Another game back are New Orleans (41-30) and San Antonio (41-30), with Minnesota (41-31) at No. 7 and Utah (40-31) at No. 8, four games behind the Blazers.
Portland's next action is no gimme, either — Friday night at home against Boston (48-23), the No. 2 team in the East.
"We played a good game against the best team tonight," Stotts said. "There are no moral victories. We all felt we had a good chance to win it, and it's disappointing to lose. We have to play Boston on Friday and we need to win that game."
Without injured starters Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics pulled off a miracle finish Tuesday night against the Thunder, coming from six points down with 24 seconds left to win 100-99.
"They have dealt with injuries all year long, and they have had to have a lot of guys step up and play a lot of minutes and just be ready," Lillard said. "They play with confidence. They beat OKC tonight — that's a big win — and they beat us shorthanded in Boston (97-96 on Feb. 4). We have to be ready to play a sharp game and get back going in the right direction."
NOTES: Aminu tied his career high for made 3-pointers. ... Lillard has scored at least 20 points in 16 straight games, the longest streak of his career. ... Houston came into the game averaging an NBA-high 42 3-point attempts, Portland 27-plus. The Rockets were shooting .365 from the 3-point line, the Blazers .380. In their previous two meetings this season, Houston attempted 63 3-pointers, Portland 67. Asked prior to the game what he expected from his team in Tuesday's game, Stotts said, "I think 30-some 3's is a reasonable number. As long as they're good 3's and they come off the pass, I don't mind taking more. The object is to get good shots." ... Stotts, on Houston's offensive philosophy: "Everybody knows it's 3's, the rim and the free-throw line. That's their formula and they're good at all three. If you take away 3's, then they probably get to the rim more, penetrate more and maybe draw more fouls. You have to pick your poison. I just know the 3-point shot is a big part of their identity, so that's been one of our (defensive) priorities."
D'Antoni played professionally in Italy in the late 1980s and played in Europe against former Trail Blazers guard Drazen Petrovic, whose life was cut short by a fatal auto accident at age 28. "He put 49 (points) right in my face," D'Antoni said. "He was one of the best offensive players ever to play the game. He would have had a long, great career in the NBA. And he was a good guy. I have great memories. We had some battles. I didn't like him for a long time. But once I got to know him, I did."