The action inside the Disney World bubble has been fantastic and that trend continued on Tuesday night with an entertaining Western Conference matchup between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. Things went down to the final few minutes, but the Blazers escaped with a huge win, leaving with a 110-102 victory.
Damian Lillard really struggled to score early on, but picked it up in the second half, and wound up leading the Blazers with 21 points. Five different Blazers scored in double figures, including Gary Trent Jr., who kept up his strong start in the bubble with four 3-pointers and 16 points off the bench. With the win, they are now just 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies for eighth place in the West and are all alone in ninth.
As for the Rockets, they did not have one of their best offensive games. The Blazers were intent on trapping James Harden to get the ball out of his hands, and that strategy worked. He finished with 23 points, six rebounds and nine assists, but he couldn't dominate the way he often does. Jeff Green stepped up to hit five 3s and score 22 points, but the rest of the team had a tough night from behind the arc. Outside of Green, they were just 14-for-44.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
1. Lillard steps up in the second half
Damian Lillard had far from his best game against the Rockets, especially in terms of scoring the ball. But even though his shot wasn't going in, he found other ways to help his team and stepped up when they needed him in the second half.
He crashed the glass for nine rebounds, helping the Blazers run up a massive 64-39 advantage on the small-ball Rockets in that category, and dished out nine assists. And though his 21 points on 6-for-19 from the field weren't anything to write home about, he scored 17 of them in the second half.
In particular, he had a key nine-point stretch in the middle of the third quarter that halted the Rockets' momentum, and pushed the Blazers lead from two points, back up to eight. He also hit a huge 3-pointer in the middle of the fourth quarter after the Rockets had tied things up, and his late free throws helped seal the win. While it certainly wasn't "Dame Time" in the usual sense, the shots he did make came at crucial moments for the Blazers.
2. Playoff implications
This was a big game with regard to the playoff picture in the Western Conference. Not so much for the Rockets, who have already clinched a postseason berth and are playing for seeding, but definitely for the Trail Blazers and the race for the eighth and final spot.
Entering the restart, the Blazers were 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for eighth place. Less than a week later, they've cut that deficit to 1.5 games. As a result, they'll almost certainly finish within the four-game gap necessary to force a play-in scenario. The next step is making sure they lock up ninth place and thanks to Tuesday's win, they've taken sole possession.
They still have plenty of work to do, with a tough schedule that includes games against the Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers and Mavericks, but the start to life in the bubble couldn't have gone any better for the Blazers.
As for the Rockets, the loss means they're tied with the Jazz for fourth place in the West at 42-25. Just 2.5 games separate third and sixth, however, so there's still plenty of room for them to move up or down. Given their success against Utah in the playoffs in recent seasons, however, they might not want to move at all.
3. Give it up for Gary
Gary Trent Jr. wasn't a household name heading into the bubble, but the second-year swingman has quickly changed that. He's been fantastic in Orlando and kept that up with another strong game off the bench, knocking down four 3-pointers on his way to 16 points.
In three games at Disney World, Trent is now averaging 18 points and shooting 60 percent from 3-point land. He's scored at least 16 points in each game. In 53 games before the lockdown, he did that just seven times. His shooting has been a huge boost for the Blazers and is a big reason they're converting on 42.7 percent of their attempts from downtown as a team.
This isn't just some fluke either. While you can't expect him to shoot 60 percent the rest of the way, he had been playing quite well before the season was suspended. In 13 games after the All-Star break, he was at 12.8 points and 42.9 percent from 3. He doesn't offer much beyond shooting, but if he's going to shoot like this, that's more than enough.