Blazers rule, Rockets duel on night of drama at Moda
The Houston Rockets are going nowhere fast, while the Trail Blazers are trending steadily upward.
Those were the primary talking points on a Wednesday night stoked full of drama at Moda Center.
There was Damian Lillard celebrating his reconnection with the U.S. Olympic team by scoring 31 points and dishing nine assists in Portland's 116-103 dusting of the Rockets.
There was Houston villain Patrick Beverley, a pest if there ever were one, drawing plenty of boos and what amounted to a pair of intentional fouls while bodying Lillard in a vain attempt to throw the Blazers' best player off his game.
There was Moe Harkless' continuing emergence as an important presence in Portland's starting lineup, going for season highs of 19 points and 13 rebounds in 28 effective minutes.
It was the 12th win in 15 games for the streaking Blazers (27-27), who catapulted past Houston (27-28) into a tie with Utah (26-26) for seventh place in the Western Conference standings. Dallas (29-26) is only a game and a half ahead in sixth.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have lost six of their last eight games, and they're not taking it well.
They looked disconnected on the court, with lax defense and countless unforced errors contributing to 20 turnovers that led to 31 Portland points.
They sounded disconnected afterward as they met with the media after their second loss to the Blazers in four days.
"We're broken," interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "It's that simple. Right now, we're a broken team. We all need to use this break to figure out how we're going to impact change. If (players) don't want to impact change, (coaches) need to be made aware of that, too, and we'll go in a different direction.
"We can't continue to go out and play this way. It's easy to see it's a fragmented bunch. You can't win that way."
Asked if he meant Houston's players were bickering among themselves, the son of former Blazers assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff elaborated.
"We're not on the same page," he said. "We all say we'll do whatever it takes to win. You have to walk that walk. If you're going to do that, you have to go out and do it.
"Right now, we have guys who believe they're competing and guys who are trying to get after it, but the train's not always moving in the same direction. (Coaches) have to fix it. That's our job. We'll show up every day, and we'll work to fix it."
Bickerstaff's reflections were quite a change from what he told the media before the game when asked if his players were giving consistent effort.
"Over the course of the year, you're going to have games where you might not have it that night," he said. "Our group is a fighting group. There's been no doubt in my mind about that. Any time we're given an opportunity to strap it on, they've gotten after it. The effort isn't a problem. It's not a concern for us. The scrappiness, the toughness, we bring most nights."
Well, so much for that.
Houston stars James Harden (34 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds along with eight turnovers) and Dwight Howard (28 points on 13-for-17 shooting, 13 boards) got their numbers, but no other Rockets scored in double figures. Howard and Harden combined for Houston's first 26 points. No other Rocket scored until Corey Brewer's 3-pointer as time expired in the first quarter.
Portland led 57-46 at halftime and was in front 86-65 late in the third quarter when the Rockets finally surged, using a 23-7 run to draw within 93-88 early in the final period. The Blazers answered with seven straight points to make it 100-88 with 6:50 left.
The Rockets were to get no closer. Their body language told a story, as did their words in a clearly troubled locker room afterward.
"We have to stop being so negative," Howard said. "We lose games and then we're negative. There's no way we're going to succeed if all we do is stay negative and talk negative."
What does Howard think is "broken" about the Rockets?
"I'm not here to talk about what's broken," he said. "That's all we do -- talk about the issues that we have. The negativity has to stop. You have to be positive."
What will the Rockets do to regroup after the All-Star break?
"Good question," Harden said.
Howard would have preferred being in the home locker room. Everything was positive there after another strong performance by the Blazers.
"I really like the way we're playing right now," said coach Terry Stotts, who has done a coach-of-the-year candidate's job molding a young, inexperienced group into a bonafide playoff contender. "Defensively, we've been really good the last two to three weeks. It's good to go into the break on a win streak and playing well."
Lillard seemed to use Beverley's instigation as motivation, gesturing to the crowd at times, lobbying referees for calls at other times, but at all times leading a team that wasn't expected by most to be in playoff contention at this point in the season.
"We dug ourselves a hole to start the season, giving up some games late," Lillard said. "But we stuck with it. We kept growing. We kept working. We didn't get too high or low. We were able to get to .500 at the break. Our team has done a great job of sticking to the grind."
There's a big difference between the Blazers and the Rockets, Lillard offered. And it's why he said he would be disappointed if general manager Neil Olshey messed with the roster by the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
"We're really a unit," he said. "We get along. We spend time with each other on the road. We talk to each other. We text each other. We call each other. That's a huge part of being able to turn things around. It's important we understand that."
The 6-9 Harkless, acquired from Orlando for a song after three uneven seasons with the Magic, saw regular duty off the bench through the first half of this season. That changed on Jan. 23 when Stotts opted to trim the rotation from 10 to nine players. Harkless, the odd man out, played a total of seven minutes in five games.
"After a couple of games not playing, (Stotts) came to me," said Harkless, who doesn't turn 23 until May. "He was like, 'Stay ready. This is what I'm going with now.'"
Was Harkless frustrated?
"Absolutely," he nodded. "Anybody would be. I just kept a positive attitude, kept working every single day. I knew it would come back around eventually."
Harkless' chance came when starting power forward Noah Vonleh went down with an ankle injury against Milwaukee on Feb. 2. Harkless moved into the starting lineup and played a quiet 16 minutes in a loss to Toronto. In the three games since then, though, he has averaged 14.7 points on 19-for-31 shooting, chased down rebounds and loose balls and played enough good defense that he merits continued time as a starter.
"When Noah hurt his ankle, Moe hadn't played in five games," teammate Gerald Henderson said. "He came right in and has done a great job the last three games.
"He has been asked to guard Harden a lot. He has been asked to play the three and the four. Mo can shoot, he can play defense, he can run the floor, he can rebound. He has done great."
"That shows great character after being out of the rotation," Lillard said. "He wasn't sour about it. He wasn't a negative teammate. He still showed up and worked. It's fun to be a teammate of a guy like that, to see he comes in and plays three-on-three with the younger guys, searching for the opportunity.
"It's a big year for him. When he gets the opportunity, he comes out and plays really well. Credit that with him staying prepared and not sulking and pouting. He put his work in. When the time came, he was ready for it."
Harkless said he is beginning to feel comfortable alongside his teammates.
"Now it's starting to show," he said. "As long as I'm out there on the court, I want to make it hard for (Stotts) to take me out."
The Blazers seem capable of continuing their momentum once play resumes after the All-Star break. First there is a four-game homestand. Then there is a difficult string of 11 of 13 games on the road.
But the potential to do better than almost anyone expected is there, though Stotts doesn't want to address the subject -- at least publicly.
"At the beginning of the season it wasn't about a number (of wins)," he said. "The goal was to make the playoffs. We've never shied away from that as a goal, but we have a long way to go.
"We have a third of the season and a tough schedule ahead. Every game is going to be a tough game. You want to stay in the moment, but we can't change our focus."
NOTES: Vonleh returned to active status after missing the previous three games with a sprained ankle but did not play. Lillard has 6,119 career points, moving him past Brandon Roy (6,107) into 155h place on the franchise list. "That's an honor," Lillard said. "If Roy had played as long as he should have played (without injuries), I probably would never pass him, so it's a great accomplishment."
Lillard was added to a pool of 30 players to be used for selection to the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. Lillard, dropped from the list last year, had initially decided he didn't want to be considered, but changed his mind. "It puts you in an elite group,' he said. "Every guy who has ever been a part of that team has been an elite player. It's a unique opportunity. Everybody who gets a chance to do it appreciates it a lot. Everybody who I talked to about the experience speaks highly about it. It doesn't hurt to put my name in the pool." Lillard, on Beverley's antics in Wednesday's game: "I'm not even surprised by it. It seems like every time we play, there's something between us. I don't think it's anything personal. He's a competitor; I'm a competitor. Just because there's always been something, every little thing might spark something up. So far this season, it has."
Asked if he or New York Knicks interim head coach Kurt Rambis is the NBA's tallest head coach, Stotts quipped, "We're both at the age where your body is shrinking. it depends on whose has shrunk the most." Harden has averaged 37.3 points in three games against Portland this season. Howard made his first eight shots from the field and was 8 for 9 in the first half. He finished with 13-for-17 shooting. Jefferson High grad Terrence Jones missed his fourth straight game after suffering a concussion in a single-car auto accident on Feb. 3. Jones was not on the trip, but Bickerstaff sounded hopeful he would rejoin the Rockets after the All-Star break. "We miss his versatility," Bickerstaff said of the 6-9, 250-pound power forward. "He can defend smalls on the perimeter. He makes them pay on the interior with his offensive rebounding. He has the ability to score and play-make. Just having an extra body with some size that you can throw at people is always a benefit."