PORTLAND — Now, the season comes down to this.
Will the Trail Blazers show some pride?
After Friday night’s 116-98 loss to the Houston Rockets, starter Wesley Matthews demanded as much.
“We need to check our hearts at the door,” Matthews said. “We’ve lost seven. C’mon, we’re better than that. We’ve got to play with some damn heart.”
The Blazers (33-43) allowed the Rockets’ backcourt of Jeremy Lin and James Harden to score 55 points and for sixth time in seven games, could not stop an opponent from shooting over 50 percent from the floor.
As the team matched a season-worst seven-game losing streak and was eliminated from playoff contention, the performance spoiled LaMarcus Aldridge’s strong return to the lineup. Aldridge had missed four straight games due to a right ankle sprain but on Friday, he scored 32 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.
“It’s definitely a downer,” coach Terry Stotts said after the seventh straight defeat. “To have a losing streak at this time of the year and playing against playoff teams, it’s a difficult task. In general, I’ve found that most players bounce back pretty well and we’ll bounce back Sunday (against the Dallas Mavericks)."
Hours before the game, Damian Lillard learned that he had won a fifth straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month award. Through March, Lillard continued his romp over the rookie class by leading all first-year players in scoring, assists, 3-pointers and field goals, among other statistics. However on this April night, Lillard only shot 4-of-12 from the floor and finished with 11 points.
In fact, several Blazers could not hit shots. Matthews missed a season-high 10 attempts from the 3-point line, while Victor Claver, starting in place of the injured Nicolas Batum, could only make a shot from four feet or closer.
Only Aldridge found immunity from the cold touch as the team shot only 10 percent from beyond the arc (2 for 20) and 41.8 percent for the game.
“I’ll take the blame for most of that,” Matthews said about the 3-point shooting. “I’ve been off a little bit. We can’t give up (12) … to the other team. We’ve got to knock down shots.”
Aldridge was cooking early — 14 points on 11 shots — but that other Western Conference All-Star on the opposite side of the court was just as hot.
Through the first quarter, Harden spent as much time at the free-throw line as all five Blazer starters (4 for 5) and hit more 3-pointers than Portland had attempted (3 for 5). Then, Harden’s teammates joined the 3-point foray.
When backup point guard Patrick Beverley drained a deep shot after the midway point of the second quarter, Houston held a commanding edge from distance with nine 3-point makes compared to Portland’s one. This disparity helped the Rockets rise to a 19-point lead while the Blazers remained stuck on 40 points for a two-minute scoreless stretch.
Finally, with 3:19 remaining, Aldridge snapped his team back to life and his layup also ignited a strong close by the Blazers.
After a lively 12-0 run, Portland climbed back into the game and rookie Will Barton had a clean look from the 3-point corner before the halftime buzzer that would have capped an impressive comeback. Though Barton missed, progress showed as the Portland trailed 63-56 at halftime.
However, the pit stop in the locker room still could not fix the Blazers’ broken 3-point shooting.
Not until Matthews hit a corner shot in front of the Houston bench did the Blazers finally get their second made 3-pointer of the game. While other Blazers backed away from the toxic shot, Matthews tried and tried again and ultimately missed five 3-pointers in the third quarter alone.
As the team shooting percentage plummeted, the Rockets’ lead soared back to double digits when the Blazers two sloppy possessions and a turnover.
“You hate to give up 63 points in the first half. You hate to have mental breakdowns at the end of the third quarter,” Stotts said. “You can’t have mental mistakes. I think we should be past some of these things.”