The Houston Rockets have been doing fine without Dwight Howard, though their defensive stalwart may soon return.
The Portland Trail Blazers aren’t as fortunate.
Following an ugly first look at how things could be without Wesley Matthews, the Blazers now must overcome their top perimeter defender’s absence against one of the league’s most prolific backcourt stars as they host James Harden and the Rockets on Wednesday night.
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Then again, having Matthews for the teams’ first two meetings didn’t help Portland stop Harden. Two of his four highest-scoring games of the season came against the Blazers, posting 44 points in a 110-95 win Dec. 22 and scoring 45 in a 109-98 defeat Feb. 8.
Maybe the key to those results was the losing team missing its best big man. LaMarcus Aldridge sat out the first meeting with an illness, then had a team-high 24 points last month as Portland outscored Houston in the paint 46-30. Howard sat out that game with a right knee injury which continues to keep him sidelined, though coach Kevin McHale said it was "a good sign" over the weekend that the former Defensive Player of the Year had begun some conditioning and floor work.
While Houston (43-20) has managed a 13-6 record since losing Howard, winning seven of its last nine, Portland (41-20) was handed a bad loss in its only game after Matthews suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles. The Blazers entered Minnesota on Saturday with a five-game winning streak but lost 121-113 to the Western Conference’s worst team, surrendering their highest point total of the season.
"I probably talk to him more than anybody, so it’s definitely different," Aldridge said of being without Matthews. "But we’ve got guys out there that can go compete still."
Matthews might have been able to help slow down Timberwolves shooting guards Kevin Martin and Gary Neal, who combined for 56 points to help offset Damian Lillard’s 32.
"(Matthews) does it all. He can defend, he can post up, he can knock down the open 3," Neal said. "They’re definitely going to miss him."
Arron Afflalo, not known for his defense, moved into the starting lineup and had 14 points – only slightly below Matthews’ average – but fouled out for the first time in two years and had no steals. Matthews is among the NBA leaders since the beginning of February with 2.0 per game.
"There were times that he was just trying to do the right thing," Lillard said of Afflalo, acquired from Denver on Feb. 19. "I had to keep encouraging him to be himself."
Harden is certainly doing that, averaging 29.3 points this month despite recently being surpassed by Russell Westbrook for the NBA scoring lead (27.4 to 27.1). Additionally, Harden has added 9.9 assists per game over his last seven.
However, it may be as important to the Rockets that Corey Brewer keeps stepping up. They’re 7-1 since Jan. 23 when he surpasses his season average of 11.4 points, including 24 in Saturday’s 114-100 win in Denver.
"He’s a game-changer," Harden said.
Brewer has been a catalyst since being acquired from Minnesota in a three-team trade in December.
"I feel if I have a lot of energy it picks everybody else up," he said.
This game is Houston’s first in Portland since Lillard hit a series-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in Game 6 in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The Rockets have been in town since Sunday.
"Of course (the Rockets remember the shot) but I think they aren’t thinking about that," Lillard said. "It’s not the playoffs right now. They’re coming in here just trying to get another win."