By Candace Buckner
Columbian staff writer
PORTLAND – As the red and silver streamers showered the floor like a fresh rain, no one seemed to care that the Trail Blazers had just surrendered 50 points in the paint.
It would’ve been a downer to bring up center J.J. Hickson’s vanishing double-double act as the starter sat for the entire overtime period in favor a rookie playing in only the ninth game of his NBA career.
To the Friday night revelers who danced when their team fought back from a 15-point deficit and held their hearts when launched Rocket 3-pointers threatened the final result, the trivial matters will be saved for another day.
For now, they will celebrate this 119-117 overtime win over the Houston Rockets. The fans should now understand that these Blazers will make nights equally infuriating and exhilarating – until the streamers fall, then everything is all beautiful again.
“It was a hell of a game,” coach Terry Stotts said. “We kind of make it interesting but I think one thing that’s kind of been evident with our team so far this year, we compete until the end.”
Nicolas Batum matched his career-best in scoring but his five blocks, many while the lanky 6-foot-8 forward chased down shots, deserved as much attention as his 35 points. First-year big man Meyers Leonard finished with eight points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes and 45 seconds and his draft class mate Damian Lillard (27 points on 9-of-18 shooting) led the Blazers through their fourth-quarter comeback that stretched into overtime. Although the rookie assumed leadership, it was the captain and the team’s only All-Star who canned the game. With 36.8 seconds remaining in overtime, LaMarcus Aldridge spun away from his defender on the baseline, leaned back and drilled a nine-foot jump shot.
The bucket stretched the Blazers’ (4-5) lead to three points and sound defense through the final moments secured the team’s first home win since the Halloween romp over the Los Angeles Lakers.
“When we went on the road (to Sacramento), it was like, ‘we can’t drop this one, we got to go on the road and steal one,’ and we were able to do that,” Lillard said, recalling the motivation the Blazers had in snapping the former four-game losing streak on Tuesday night. “We already lost three games in a row at home. So, it was really important for us to come back home and win a game.”
And yet through much of the first half, the Blazers did not show the defensive backbone to stop the slide as well as the Rockets (4-5) from winning their fourth straight inside the Rose Garden.
Houston hurt the Blazers in first-half transition points (17 to 1) and shared assists on 15 of its 22 makes compared the home team’s nine assists.
When asked what’s driving the Blazers’ season-long trend for roaring out of the locker room for big third quarters, Stotts quipped: “Probably our poor first halves.”
However on Friday night, the slips from the first 24 minutes carried into the third quarter as the Rockets responded to the Blazers’ interior defense as if only a turnstile stood between the paint and rim.
At the 4:45 mark, the Blazers fell behind 13 points when Jeremy Lin breezed by Batum, taking the baseline and spotting a clear pathway for two points. Jared Jeffries – caught with his back to the drive – bumped into Lin and after the three-point play, the Rockets led 77-64. But that bucket seemed to awaken something within the Blazers.
Batum took over by scoring eight straight before Leonard, in for Hickson, grabbed a lead pass from Lillard and while in flight, slammed the ball for one of his trademark alley-oop dunks. When Lillard’s finger roll near the end the quarter pulled the Blazers within 79-78, the rally shifted to his hands.
The rookie, who carries the future of the franchise on his squared shoulders, made the veteran Jeffries bounce on his toes near the bench and swoon like a fan as he made two strong dribbles against Lin, then slammed the brakes to rise and shoot the nine-foot jumper. The basket had given the Blazers the 111-108 lead and came during the midst of Lillard scoring 16 of the team’s 18 points.
“When a kid as good as Damian, as a basketball player and as a person,” Jeffries said, “played how he did tonight, you’re happy for him. You’re happy to see him play that well.”
Afterwards, Lillard would reveal that he didn’t grasp during the run that he was playing such a huge role. It’s the same charming, rookie innocence that Lillard displayed when he admitted out loud how he thought he had joined Sacramento’s pint-sized Isaiah Thomas, not the legendary Isiah Thomas, as one of only three men to record at least 20 and 10 in his NBA debut on Halloween night.
“In my mind, I felt like I was part of the run,” Lillard said about the memorable Friday night. “I could remember Nic making shots, I could remember L.A. getting fouled. In my head, I didn’t realize I scored 16 of 18.”
Although a Rockets’ 3-pointer sent the game into overtime, Lillard still raged red hot and poured in five more points until Aldridge regained his big-shot status.
Aldridge’s turnaround baseline jumper extended the Blazers lead to 119-116 and Batum protected the lead by following James Harden to the rim and sending his shot into the baseline seats. The Blazers dodged a few more bullets within the final 29.4 seconds, withstanding Harden’s intentional missed second free throw to try to give the Rockets a final shot at a game-winning field goal. The Rockets could not get a shot off in time, and the celebratory garlands raining from the rafters washed away the earlier concerns.
“For a long stretch of the game, it wasn’t the way we wanted it,” Stotts said, “but when it mattered, we played pretty well.”