TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Houston's James Harden and Portland's Damian Lillard go for the ball.It was early in the third quarter Thursday night at Moda Center, and with the Trail Blazers leading 74-53 and hand firmly on joystick, another one-sided victory over the rudderless Houston Rockets seemed inevitable.

But NBA games have to be played out the entire 48 minutes for a reason.

With James Harden dipping into his bag of magic tricks and Portland suddenly unable to get much done at either end of the floor, Houston rallied for a stunning 119-105 win that could wind up having serious playoff implications.

Had the Blazers beaten Houston in the teams’ third meeting in 19 days — the Blazers won handily in the first two contests — they’d have gained a three-game cushion over the Rockets in the Western Conference playoff chase. Instead, Houston (29-29) moved to within a game of Portland (30-28) in the tightly bunched West race. The Blazers are tied for sixth place with Dallas. Houston — which has won only four of its last 11 games — is in eighth, a half-game ahead of Utah (28-29).

Harden scored 34 of his 46 points in the second half — 19 of them coming in the fourth quarter — as the Rockets landed a haymaker the Blazers didn’t see coming until it was too late.

‘Earlier in the season, we had a lot of losses that really hurt, because we wanted to win,” Portland’s Damian Lillard said. “Now it’s to the point where we’ve won enough games and understood what we did to win those games, to where you have one like this, and it’s like, ‘Come on. Man.’

“It’s one of those losses, especially with the way we played the majority of the game.”

The loss ended a six-game win streak for the Blazers, and was only their second defeat in the last 13 games. The Rockets looked dead and buried after Portland extended a 64-49 halftime lead to a 21-point advantage three minutes into the third quarter.

Then the momentum began to turn. The Rockets closed the gap to 85-75 on back-to-back 3s by reserve guard Jason Terry. Moments later, Harden knocked down successive treys to cut the margin to 91-86. Suddenly, it was game on.

And when the going got tough, Harden was unstoppable. Over the final 12 minutes, Harden was 5 for 5 from the field and 9 for 10 from the line.

“He hit some tough shots,” Portland’s CJ McCollum said. “He gets to the line a lot. He draws a lot of contact and puts the onus on the referees.”

When the smoke cleared, Houston had outscored Portland 70-41 in the second half — including 34-12 in the fourth quarter. Over the final 20 minutes, the disparity was 67-33. For the game, the Rockets dominated in points in the paint (62-26), second-chance points (23-9) and fast-break points (16-9).

“We picked up our intensity,” Harden said. “The first half, they were aggressive with everything and we were letting them do what they want. In the second half, we dictated what we wanted and got to our spots defensively.”

Houston was 9 for 15 from the field and 14 for 21 at the foul line in the fourth quarter. Portland, meanwhile, made only 5 of 21 shots in the fourth quarter, going 1 for 9 from 3-point range after sinking 12 of 26 attempts from beyond the arc to that point.

“It was frustrating, because we played so well to start the game,” said Lillard, who collected 23 points, seven assists and six rebounds but was only 6 for 20 from the field. “We came out strong in that third quarter; then we got a little comfortable.

“They saw a few shots go in, kept competing and stuck with it. They played like a desperate team. We took what we’d been doing for granted. They found life and came back and won the game.”

In the fourth quarter, Houston used 6-8 Trevor Ariza to guard the 6-3 Lillard and 6-9 Corey Brewer to defend the 6-3 McCollum. Lillard and McCollum, suddenly bottled up after combining for 34 points through three quarters, combined to make 4 of 15 shots in the final period.

“They put length on Dame and CJ,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They were making our catches difficult. They guarded pick-and-rolls well, and they were more aggressive.

“But we didn’t make passes. The ball wasn’t moving. Part of that was better defense, but we didn’t do the things you need to do against teams that get into you defensively like they did.”

Lillard hit three of his first four shots, then was 3 for 16 the rest of the way, including 3 for 11 in the fourth quarter.

“They disrupted our offense,” he said, “and we didn’t play well enough defensively for the way they turned it up.”

The Blazers have played 12 of their last 14 games at home. Over that stretch, they’ve gone 11-3 — 11-2 in the last 13 games. Beginning Saturday at Chicago, they have 11 of their next 13 contests on the road. Among the opponents are Indiana, Boston, Toronto, Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Bulls, Pacers, Celtics and Raptors are among foes on the upcoming six-game trek.

“Big trip,” center Mason Plumlee said. “This is a key part of the season. We need to have a great road trip.”

“We had a stretch where we locked in and took care of home,” Lillard said. “Now we have to have the same mindset on the road. We know it’s going to take a lot to be on the road against good teams and get it done. We have to go out there and be road warriors.

“We can’t be comfortable with what we’ve done over the last 15 games. We have to approach it the same way we did at the beginning of the season. We have to watch (video) and learn from it and grow from it and go from there.”

  • NOTES: Portland and Houston finish the season series tied 2-2. … Lillard entered the game on a string of five straight games having scored 30 points or more. Only one other Trail Blazer — Geoff Petrie in the team’s inaugural 1970-71 season — has matched that feat. No Portland player has hit the 30-point barrier six times. “I’ve been around players who have been on runs before, but I can’t say I’ve been with a player who scored 30 points five straight games,” Stotts said before the game. “It’s been remarkable, but the most important thing is, we’ve won the games. Damian would say the same thing.” … McCollum scored 20 points on 9-for-19 shooting and had five rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. … Harden finished 16 for 26 from the field and 10 for 13 from the line. He had five rebounds and eight assists in 46 minutes. … Dwight Howard collected 19 points and 13 boards for the Rockets. … The Blazers had 21 turnovers that resulted in 26 Houston points.

    Portland has only two home dates between now and March 23. “We know we’re not going to win every game on the road, but we have to give ourselves a chance each game and see what the outcome is going to be,” reserve forward Ed Davis said. … With the score 117-105 in the closing seconds, the Rockets got the ball after a missed Portland shot. Normally, teams that are ahead run out the clock in that situation. Terry dribbled in for a layup with 9.5 seconds left. “It’s an unwritten rule, pretty cut and dried, that you don’t do that,” said Portland forward Meyers Leonard, who exchanged words with Houston coach JB Bickerstaff over the incident after the game. Davis said Terry knows the teams don’t face each other again this season, “unless we catch them in the playoffs, which is unlikely. He knew what he was doing. He’s a veteran player. We’ll see him next year, or whenever.”

    Bickerstaff pregame on Lillard and McCollum: “They’re as lethal as any guard combination in the league.” … The Blazers entered the day ranked seventh in the league in offensive efficiency rating (105.2) and tied for eighth in effective field-goal percentage (figuring in 3-point shots, .509). But they were only tied for 18th in defensive efficiency rating (104.3) and 19th in number of possessions per 48 minutes (97.64).

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