HOUSTON — Just when the Houston Rockets‘ air of invincibility started to wane, MVP frontrunner James Harden did what was necessary to restore order and right the Rockets’ formidable vessel.
On the heels of uninspired efforts last weekend, including a 17-point loss at San Antonio on Sunday, the Rockets (63-15) reclaimed their rhythm on Tuesday with a 120-104 victory over the Washington Wizards at Toyota Center, the first of three home contests this week. Houston will host the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday seeking a sweep of the four-game season series with the Blazers.
Over the five games between the Rockets’ last win in Portland and their dispatching of the Wizards, Harden averaged a modest 23.8 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting, including a paltry 15 percent on 3-pointers. He rediscovered his shooting stroke against Washington, pouring in 38 points on just 18 shot attempts while converting 5 of 8 shots from behind the arc.
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“We understand we’ve got to change our mentality and get into playoff mode, and come out with some aggressiveness and kind of take control of the game in that first quarter,” Harden said.
The Blazers (48-30) are in the position Houston occupied last weekend. Starting with a victory on Valentine’s Day at Phoenix, Portland reeled off 13 consecutive wins to essentially secure a postseason berth and garner attention as a playoff dark horse. But the Trail Blazers are just 4-4 since, with the Rockets snapping that streak in Portland on March 20. The Blazers have dropped games at Memphis and Dallas, two Western Conference bottom feeders, since, with their setback against the Mavericks on Tuesday reflecting their lagging defense of late.
Portland owns a 107.2 defensive rating over its last eight games, a mark that ranks 16th in the league and represents a concerning drop for a defense that has ranked in the top 10 all season.
“That was a bad loss for us,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We didn’t do the things defensively (to win), particularly in the first half. We didn’t play with the urgency defensively to have an impact. Obviously, we didn’t shoot the ball well (10 of 40 on 3-pointers), but I think that’s kind of a mindset as well. No excuses. We didn’t play well and we need to play better.”
The stop in Houston is the second on the Blazers’ four-game road swing with San Antonio and Denver, both scrapping to secure a postseason bid, up next. The Trail Blazers will close the regular season at home against Utah in a game that could mean a great deal to the Jazz. After streaking its way to third place in the conference standings, Portland can ill afford to surrender that momentum against the teams it could potentially face in the opening round of the playoffs.
“We’ve been a very, very good team for two or three months,” Stotts said. “But this game on the heels of losing at Memphis and our poor first half against Memphis at home (on April 1), I don’t know. We’ll watch the video, but I don’t know if it’s a mindset or not. But these last (few games), it’s not going to be easy the rest of the way. So, we’ve got to understand that.”
Trail Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard rolled his left ankle at Dallas and his status against the Rockets is questionable.