April 5, 2018, 11:53 pm
Talk about a moral victory. Unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, though, almost all good vibes emanating from their frantic, and ultimately futile, crunch-time comeback against the Houston Rockets won’t mean much going forward.
Houston beat Portland 96-94 at Toyota Center on Thursday night, but that score hardly tells the whole story of a game Terry Stotts thought was over with just under four minutes left on the fourth-quarter clock. The Rockets led 94-77 when Stotts gave Georgios Papagiannis his first minutes in a Blazers uniform, flanking the never-used seven-footer with Wade Baldwin, Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman and Caleb Swanigan. But that white flag was quickly lowered, with Portland’s reserves scoring 17 unanswered points to tie the score with just 6.1 seconds remaining.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen in this league; you just never know,” Stotts told NBC Sports after the game. “When I put those guys in, I wasn’t thinking they would make a comeback, I was resting my guys.”
But four prospective Summer Leaguers and a player perhaps on verge of falling out of the rotation had other ideas. While the Rockets’ role players missed open shot after open shot after the ball was forced from the hands of James Harden with early double-teams, the Blazers’ bench slowly and surely chipped away at a lead that seemed insurmountable.
Baldwin showed off the handle, explosion and finishing ability that has Portland fans buzzing.
Layman drained a spinning, fadeaway 18-footer with Portland really threatening.
And Connaughton, following a pair of missed free throws by Harden, brought the Blazers all the way back with this transition finger roll.
It was all for naught – at least in terms of winning and losing. Chris Paul got a half step on Baldwin to bank-in a floating eight-footer on the ensuing possession, putting Houston back up by two with .8 seconds left. McCollum, re-inserted for Papagiannis at a timeout after watching his little-known teammates dominate the best team in basketball for nearly four full minutes of action, missed a would-be game-winning triple as time expired, allowing Houston to hang on for a victory it should have already earned.
Paul and Harden put up typically stellar numbers for the Rockets, combining for 51 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds on 18-of-32 shooting. The MVP frontrunner was notably frustrated by not just the Blazers’ game-long intent on making him give up the ball up early, but also the dogged individual defense of Baldwin. Harden had eight turnovers on Thursday, and at least three of them were due solely to the pressure provided by Baldwin, who scored 14 points, grabbed three rebounds and swiped two steals in a career-high 32 minutes.
“I just feel I have to be the hungriest person in the NBA to build my brand back up,” the 2016 first-round pick explained after the game. “Defense is my ticket.”
Baldwin’s standout performance would have been the most significant takeaway for Portland if not for its improbable crunch-time comeback. There just wasn’t much good to come from this game otherwise. McCollum went just 7-of-25 from the field en route to a team-high 16 points, the second consecutive game he’s failed to efficiently carry the load with Damian Lillard sidelined. The Blazers made seven of their 22 attempts from beyond the arc, a continuance of weeks-long shooting struggles that just won’t seem to subside. Even Portland’s improved overall performance in the second half warrants a major caveat; Houston doesn’t miss 14 consecutive 3-point attempts very often.
Coming into Thursday’s game, absent Lillard, Maurice Harkless and Ed Davis on the road against a team with home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, any level of competitiveness from Portland would have been considered a success. But that line of thinking came under the presumption it would be led by players who will help decide the Blazers’ fate in the playoffs, not those sitting firmly outside the team’s top nine players.
Baldwin, Connaughton, Layman, Swanigan and Papagiannis deserve immense credit for nearly pulling off one of the season’s most dramatic upsets. Yet, big picture, that stunning turn of events won’t change how they’re perceived by the coaching staff nor upcoming opponents – with the possible exception of Baldwin, whose play on Thursday and last Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies surely has Stotts reconsidering his role.
Process over results, the adage goes. Thursday’s outcome might be the rare one, though, that doesn’t mean anything meaningful for the Blazers either way.