How competitive is the Western Conference this year? At the start of Wednesday night's action, four teams were tied for the fifth through eighth positions in the conference with identical 14-11 records. There were three other teams within a game ahead or behind that group as well. Given that only eight teams make the playoffs, that is one very important pack of teams.
Two of those 14-11 squads met in Portland Wednesday, with the Houston Rockets visiting the Trail Blazers. The Blazers were coming off of just their second home defeat of the season, a last-second loss to the Thunder in which an erroneous goaltending call cost them the game. That call might have still been in Portland's collective head in the first half against the Rockets, as they allowed Houston to shoot 59 percent en route to 60 points and a 12-point halftime lead.
The Rockets' cushion would grow to 19 in the third quarter before Portland finally decided to turn up the defensive pressure. Once they did, they started to climb back into the game. Gerald Wallace led the comeback, scoring 12 second half points and throwing his body around in the manner that earned him the sobriquet Crash.
Over the course of 12 minutes of game time, Portland put together a 27-8 run to tie the game at 77. But as is so often the case in the NBA, the Blazers used all their energy to get back to even, and had nothing left. They tied the game twice more, but were never able to take the lead, and then allowed Houston to go on an 8-0 run to regain control. Portland was all out of comebacks at that point.
Houston coach Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for trusting his bench in this one. Houston's leading scorer on the season, Kevin Martin, scored just four points and played just 15 minutes. Second leading scorer Luis Scola played just 24 minutes. In the final quarter, it was reserves Chase Budinger (22 points in the game), Courtney Lee (16) and Goran Dragic (10) closing out the win.
Dragic was on the floor down the stretch because starter Kyle Lowry left the game in the third quarter with an elbow injury. Lowry went directly to the locker room and did not return with what is being described as a strained elbow.
The Blazers were led by Jamal Crawford with 21 points while Wallace finished with 20 and 9 rebounds. Portland's star LaMarcus Aldridge had a season-low 13 points on 5 for 14 shooting and only 5 rebounds in a decidedly sub-par outing.
And how competitive is the West? With the win, Houston is now tied for fourth in the conference, while the loss drops Portland all the way to ninth, out of the playoffs if the season were to end today. So one win could be the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and no postseason at all. It's going to be a crazy couple of months out west.