HOUSTON Score for show, defend for dough.
It's a twist-around of one of golf's most well-known axioms, with particular relevance to the situation the Trail Blazers face as they begin the second half of the NBA regular season.
Offense was not the problem in Portland's 126-113 loss to Houston Monday night at the Toyota Center, the Blazers' first defeat in three games on a brutal road trip that ends Tuesday at Oklahoma City.
On a lot of nights, the Blazers -- the best offensive team in the NBA, at least statistically -- can simply outscore the opposition.
On some nights, though, their defense will get them into trouble.
Especially against a team such as Houston (28-15), which operates in much the same manner as the Blazers offensively. The Rockets score inside with Dwight Howard and spread the court with a nice array of 3-point shooters.
It was a formula for success Monday night. Howard went for 24 points and 12 rebounds, and the Rockets were 16 for 33 on treys. Six Rockets scored from beyond the arc, including 7-foot Donatas Motiejunas, pressed into duty when Jefferson High grad Terrence Jones was ruled out with a deep thigh bruise.
Houston had the Blazers on their heels from the get-go. The Rockets scored on their first 11 possessions, making 11 of 12 shots from the field to mount a 25-11 lead after five minutes.
"That set the tone for the game," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
The Blazers (31-10), bailing water from the rowboat from the opening minutes, hung in enough to make it a game for a while. They cut Houston's lead to 86-80 with a Wesley Matthews 3-pointer midway through the third quarter, but could get no closer. When Stotts finally threw in the towel with 3:41 remaining, the Rockets were ahead 124-106, having already secured their highest total of the season.
"Every time we cut the lead down, we kept coming one loose ball, one rebound away from getting back into the game," said point guard Damian Lillard, who scored 14 of his 24 points in the third quarter. "It was one of those games."
Stotts' goal is always to yield no 30-point quarters. The Blazers gave up three of them -- the first three, as Houston jetted to a 106-91 advantage.
The Rockets made 10 of their first 12 3-point attempts and were 10 for 13 in the first half, shooting .667 from the field overall through intermission in seizing a 71-56 lead.
They were only 6 for 20 from long distance and 17 for 44 overall (.386) in the second half, but by that time, it didn't much matter.
It was the most points Portland has allowed all season.
"We could have guarded better, no question, but they're an explosive team," Stotts said. "They made their 3s tonight. Some of that was on us, but give the Rockets credit. They did what they do very well tonight. They got to the rim, they got out in transition, they hit their 3s, and Dwight was great in the paint. When they're playing like that, they're a dynamic offensive team."
Portland had no answer for small forward Chandler Parsons, who came close to his first career triple-double with 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
James Harden (22 points, six rebounds, five assists), Patrick Beverley (17 points in his first game since breaking a hand a month ago) and Omri Casspi (15 points, six rebounds off the bench) also played a big part in the Rockets' runaway win.
"We know what they like to do," said Matthews, who scored 18 points but was only 2 for 9 from 3-point range. "They play in transition and shoot 3's, get to the paint, shoot free throws. Our offense didn't help us out much. We weren't making shots. And they were able to push.
"Credit them, but discredit us a little bit."
The Blazers were hammered 52-37 on the boards and made only 8 of 25 3-pointers, leaving them outscored by 24 points on 3-balls. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 27 points to go with 20 rebounds but was only 11 for 26 from the field after starting 1 for 7. Aldridge and Lillard (7 for 17) combined to make 18 of 43 shots.
"You can live with that," Houston coach Kevin McHale said.
But it's at the defensive end where the Blazers must improve -- especially early in games.
"We have to go in hungry," Aldridge said. "We have to focus on being better defensively than we were tonight. And we have to start the game better.
"They made shots, so it was tough. But you have to take away tendencies. They started out feeling comfortable and just ran with it. We can't let that happen."
After rousing victories at San Antonio and Dallas, the Blazers envisioned taking a four-game sweep and the Western Conference's best record back to Portland. It won't happen now.
"It would have been nice," Lillard said. "We exerted a lot of energy in those first two games. We played really well. A lot of shots fell for us.
"This was coming eventually, where we miss some shots we usually make. (It was) hard to get ourselves going in the third game in four nights, but there's no excuse. They played a better game than we did."
The Blazers take a gaudy 15-6 road record into Oklahoma City.
Even so, Matthews said, "We're upset. You always want to be .500 on the road, but we're a greedy team."
The Blazers and Thunder own the same record (31-10), putting them a game behind San Antonio in the Western Conference. If the playoffs began today, Portland would be the No. 2 seed (off a 2-0 mark against OKC), Houston No. 5. There's the chance, of course, that positions could get juggled and the Blazers and Rockets wind up squaring off in the first round.
It would be a heck of a series, and an entertaining one. Houston has pinned a pair of losses on Portland already, while losing the middle encounter. The Rockets seem to match up well with the Blazers, doing a number on them Monday night even without power forward Jones, who has been a formidable force in recent outings.
There was an ominous note for the Blazers late in the game when Nicolas Batum -- who fought foul trouble and had one of his least productive outings of the season -- re-injured the middle finger on his left hand he broke two weeks ago.
"It got stuck on something, and I heard it crack," said Batum, who made 2 of 6 shots, finished with six points, seven assists and three rebounds and got lit up by Parsons.
Batum had the finger X-rayed after the game. Nothing new was revealed, just the same break. But Batum's finger was swollen, leaving the protective splint he has been using too small to fit. Batum said the finger, which had been healing, now feels like it did when it was first injured. His availability against the Thunder is in question.
Not what the Blazers needed when taking on Kevin Durant and company on the back end of a grueling four-game, five-day swing. Defense, it would seem, will be what the doctor orders -- Batum or no Batum.