• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers’ 111-103 loss to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night at Toyota Center.

    Avoidable bench woes

    The bench lost this game for Portland. The Blazers raced out to a 27-12 lead in the first quarter, draining tough shots, dominating the offensive glass, and playing a full step faster than a Rockets team that entered Tuesday’s action having lost three straight. Eric Gordon said earlier this week that he “just [is] not having fun” playing basketball, and the first eight minutes of the first quarter did nothing to assuage concerns about Houston’s psyche, despite Mike D’Antoni trying to juice his team by inserting Gordon as a starter next to Chris Paul and James Harden. But Portland’s lead was barely there by the time the first period was over, as a seldom-used lineup of Evan Turner, Nik Stauskas, Jake Layman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Zach Collins surrendered a 15-2 run to Houston despite Harden sitting on the bench. Later, in the first minute and 55 seconds of the fourth quarter, a quintet of Seth Curry, C.J. McCollum, Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Meyers Leonard gave up a quick 7-0 spurt, forcing a timeout by Terry Stotts and increasing Houston’s lead to double-digits in the blink of an eye. No single player accounted for the bench’s widespread struggles more than any other, though Curry’s turnovers on successive possessions in the final stanza certainly loomed large. The bigger problem is the Blazers, facing a switch-everything defense like the Rockets’, lack the individual playmaking dynamism behind Damian Lillard and McCollum to create the kind of pressure necessary to beat switches, draw help, and initiate the type of ball and player movement that creates open shots. Turner has fared well as a primary ball handler this season, and did for the most part on Tuesday night, but is just too limited a scorer to be featured the way he ineivtably was against defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik’s attack. Stotts, at least in the first half of close games, has been intent on sticking with the team’s offseason plan of playing Lillard and McCollum together more frequently, ensuring there will be meaningful stretches where both stars are on the bench simultaneously. It couldn’t have worked out better over the first month of the season, and the bench has shown flashes of life on both ends recently at home. But on the road, versus a team like the Rockets, Stotts would have been much better off deviating from his normal rotation to keep one of Lillard and McCollum on the floor at all times. He didn’t, and Portland suffered the predictable consequences as a result.

    McCollum’s highlight-reel inefficenicy

    McCollum was in his bag from the jump on Tuesday, scoring six points in the game’s first four minutes on perfect 3-of-3 shooting. He beat Paul middle on the right wing for a two-footed floater over Clint Capela, stepped back on Capela for a 20-footer from the left wing, and beat Harden backdoor from center court for a layup off a nice dish from Jusuf Nurkic. McCollum made only seven of his next 18 shots, though, finishing the game with 22 points on 10-of-21 shooting. He missed all five of his tries from beyond the arc and attempted just four free throws. Nobody doubts McCollum’s ability to get buckets on world-class defenders; he’s truly one of the most creative scorers in basketball. But for all of McCollum’s wizardry as a ball handler and shot-maker, he’s still been unable to match that high-level skill with equally impressive efficiency. Among the 42 players who entered Tuesday’s action with a usage rate higher than 25 percent, McCollum’s 55.3 true shooting percentage ranked 21st, smack dab in the middle. To be clear, that’s a perfectly acceptable number for a generic second option. But for the Blazers to emerge as anything more than first-round playoff fodder for a team that’s really in contention, they need Lillard and McCollum to make the type of subtle improvements that might go unnoticed at first glance, but is ultimately enough to put them in position to win more often than they were in the past. Lillard, for the second straight year, has done just that. McCollum, on the other hand? He’s the same player he was last season, notably less efficient than his breakout campaign of 2016-17, and leaving more to be desired in terms of his utility as a playmaker. There may not be many more strides for McCollum to make, and that’s fine – as long as he accompanies the maximization of his skill set with a more modern shot profile, that is, an evolution he’s yet to undergo. More three-point attempts and fewer tries from floater range would go a long way toward making McCollum more dangerous, and should be a relatively easy change for him to make on the fly.

    The folly of attacking “mismatches” in the post

    You’ve heard it before, and you heard it again tonight: “Nurkic needs more touches on the block! He’s got a major size advantage down there! He shouldn’t just be taking shots on putbacks, dump-offs, and rim rolls!” It’s easy to assume the Rockets are a good matchup for Nurkic, and that’s true to an extent. Houston is one of the league’s worst defensive rebounding teams, while Nurkic is an absolute terror on the offensive glass. He had three offensive rebounds on Tuesday and many more knocks that kept the ball alive as he fought for position with Houston defenders. The Rockets rebounded an embarrassing 57.7 percent of their misses in the first half, leading to 13 second-chance points by the Blazers – impressive numbers indeed owed to Nurkic more than any of his teammates. But the notion that Portland should force feed Nurkic on the block when he’s being checked by smaller defenders, as he was for most of Tuesday’s game, ignores the realities of his personal limitations and those of back-to-basket play in general. Nurkic isn’t good enough down low to be granted touch after touch. He lacks counter moves, needs to work on his left hand, and has a bad penchant for bringing the ball down in traffic. As such, most teams, like Houston, refuse to double-team him even if he has a supposed mismatch. Among the traits that made the Rockets such a great defensive team last season, and still factors into their success on that side of the ball now, is that Harden, Paul, Gordon, and especially P.J. Tucker play far bigger than their size suggests when defending the post. Houston sees Portland entering the ball to Nurkic in the post, with Tucker guarding him, as a win for the defense, and rightfully so. Related: Moe Harkless easily scored over the top of Paul on a quick duck-in, but had the ball stripped on the very next possession as the Blazers went after the same matchup. There’s a place in Portland’s offense for post-ups by Nurkic, Harkless, Turner, and occasionally Zach Collins, but mostly for variety, as a means of keeping the defense on its toes and keeping players engaged. But Portland just isn’t the type of team that will ever glean sustained benefit from touches on the block, even when circumstances of height, weight, and length favor the offensive player in question.

    Third quarter duel between two superstars

    It was obvious from the opening seconds of the third quarter that Harden planned to amp up his aggressiveness. He attacked the rim with abandon in the second half, taking all seven of his free-throw attempts after intermission. The reigning MVP scored 15 of his 27 points on just six shots in the third quarter alone, too, pushing the Rockets to a three-point lead entering the fourth quarter. The home team’s advantage would have been far bigger if not for Lillard, who scored 12 points in the third period despite a less-than-favorable whistle. Both teams also routinely sought the other’s superstar out defensively, knowing the defense was readily switching most ball screens. Portland targeted Harden with Lillard early, then Houston did the same to Lillard with Harden later on. The results of those matchups were mixed, though Lillard offered a bit more resistance even if the statistics don’t show it, getting into Harden’s chest on the perimeter and keeping his hands active. Regardless, it was a basketball fan’s dream to watch two of the game’s most talented, flammable scorers trade baskets in the second half of a competitive game. If the Blazers’ bench hadn’t come out so flat to open the fourth quarter, we could have been subject to round two in crunch time. Shame.

    Stotts’ revolving-door rotation

    Layman received first-quarter minutes for the third straight game after failing to appear in the previous five. Seth Curry, who received a DNP-CD against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, entered for Layman less than a minute into the second quarter as the Blazers struggled, and played 18 minutes overall. Collins was Portland’s backup center in the first half, a change ostensibly made to best matchup with the Rockets, but Meyers Leonard played five minutes thereafter. Stauskas played 12 minutes, too. Bottom line: It seems like Stotts, who prefers a nine-man rotation, is holding out hope that two of those four players is able to separate himself from the pack, joining Turner and Collins as regular cogs of the Blazers’ bench. None of them, unfortunately, did much to stand out on Tuesday. Let’s hope things play out differently on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies.

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