OK, the best part of this game can be summed up thusly:
Dangit folks, that’s why basketball is fun.
The Rockets left the door wide open on this one. Yao Ming was as docile as a wide-eyed doe out there. Seriously, you could have stuck a sack of coal on roller skates out there and gotten better defense and twice the rebounds. Yao is known for passive outings but you wonder if Joel Przybilla capping him on the first play of the game and Lamarcus doing it again in the second half had anything to do with it.
In any case, without having to contend with a dominant man in the middle the Blazers needed to do a couple things: rebound and attack the lane. The rebounding tonight was amazing, wonderful, stellar. Houston only got 5 offensive rebounds all night. Even though the Rockets shot a decent percentage (particularly in the first half) the Blazers were able to stay with them due their newfound ability to put up volumes of shots. The game never got out of hand Houston’s way because Portland kept assaulting them. At first the Blazers shot a ton of jumpers but they spread out their margin by opening up the interior and driving into it. You not only saw the usual suspects (Roy and Fernandez) penetrating but Lamarcus, Travis, and even Joel (cutting without the ball, of course). Even when they didn’t result in a bucket those drives opened up passing lanes for jumpers, which the Blazers also converted.
On the other end the Blazers did a great job of containing the Rockets’ penetration while still getting back on their shooters fairly quickly. You didn’t see a ton of open looks for Houston tonight. The rotations were crisp and usually correct. Other than Aaron Brooks speeding down the court a time or two you didn’t see us give up transition buckets either. Neither did we foul…a constant threat when guarding the Rockets. This was the most inspired, energetic defensive effort we’ve seen so far.
Then you get down to the nitty-gritty. The pattern of this game was similar to the Utah and Phoenix contests. The Blazers built a lead, then Houston came back, then the Blazers tried to fend them off. The difference between this game and the last two was that we concentrated on the defense and rebounding first, then played in-control offense. We also kept the shooting where it belonged in the final quarter…mostly in Brandon’s hands but if not him, Aldridge, Outlaw, or Fernandez. A lot of Brandon’s shots didn’t go in but you didn’t see a ton of bad shots taken by him or anyone and you knew we were throwing our best punch at them. That was good enough to get us into overtime.
The beginning of overtime was nothing to write home about for either team. The take-away point there was that even though the Blazers’ offense was derailed they kept playing hard, which is one of the secrets to winning consistently in the NBA. (How many nights have you seen us miss shots and then just crumple entirely for stretches?) The last few plays were incredible. This was going to be Brandon’s night for better or worse and you know what? I am completely comfortable with that. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with anyone else, but if Brandon wants to take the burden on his shoulders in crunch time he’s earned that right.
One of the best decisions of the game came on the second-to-last shot of the night…the first one Brandon hit. The Blazers had the ball and were tied with less than 10 on the clock. Normally that’s time-out time all the way with Nate and this young club. But calling a timeout would have let the Houston defense set. So they went with it. Brandon pulled the trigger on a spinning jumper with 1.9 left and we were going home with a two-point win, or so we thought.
We did an amazing job on Houston’s ensuing inbounds play shutting down their first couple of options. To the Blazers immense credit tonight they understood exactly where the Rockets wanted to go and they denied and harassed in exactly the right spots. Finally Houston got the ball to Yao Ming on the left side for a jumper. Przybilla was behind him but he couldn’t have stopped the shot. Brandon Roy made a good decision to come and help but he floated by instead of going straight up and nicked Yao on the arm as he released the shot, which was pure. Yao converts the free throw. 0.8 seconds to go, Blazers down 1, and we have another “almost” story to talk about until Saturday’s game.
We used our last timeout and Blake inbounded the ball to Roy about 6 feet behind the three point line. Two things strike me about his shot. First, assuming you can get hold of a replay (like in the highlight package here), tell me exactly what Tracy McGrady was doing. He had Roy initially, then Roy dove to the outside. Instead of following him McGrady just pointed for Ron Artest to pick him up. The problem was that Artest was already full engaged with (read: draped over) Travis Outlaw. There’s no way he could have picked up Roy in time. You could say McGrady stayed home to protect the paint but there was literally nobody behind him and Yao Ming, guarding the inbounds pass, had that angle sealed off anyway. It was a huge mistake. Brandon streaked to the deep perimeter, caught the ball, heaved an incredibly long, high-arcing shot, and Mr. Clutch was born again. That’s the second thing about this play. This was Brandon’s statement. Whatever the heck has been a little off about him--be it acclimation to teammates, defensive pressure, or recovery from surgery--that man is Brandon Roy. Nobody better forget it, least of all anybody in Portland. You could see it in his face. And thank God he is Brandon Roy.
So we all get to go home feeling happy. We should feel really happy. Don’t underestimate how hard this win was to get…how hard the Blazers fought for the chance to heave a miracle three at the buzzer. Even with Houston having a sub-par night, one extra five-minute stretch of inattention would have led to another 6-point loss instead of a win and a 2-3 record, hopefully .500 after Saturday night. This was a great pick-me-up, and the team and fans needed it.
--We’ve said a lot about Brandon Roy, but again you have to credit his play even on a night when he wasn’t all there. He only shot 33% but he ended up with 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. He had 5 turnovers but he still felt able to carry the ball and the offense in the critical moments. He got embarrassed by Ron Artest in the Blazers’ final possession of regulation but he still took the winning shot of the game…twice! This guy has confidence. The team obviously has confidence in him. Perhaps this will be a break-out experience for him in 2008-09.
--Lamarcus, are you kidding me? 12-20 shooting (60%), 27 points, 9 rebounds (7 defensive), 3 blocks, and only 1 foul against the Rockets. LMA loves to play those Texas teams. He was the guy who got us off to a good start and kept us in the game. You could tell from moment one this was going to be a good night for him. Imagine, folks, when he’s a few years older and that’s every night. The rebounds were the key tonight though. Bravo.
--Hey Ron Artest, meet Rudy Fernandez. Oops! I can see he’s already gotten by you. That’s OK, you can meet him later. I see Yao Ming waving at him now. Rudy had a couple of crowd-buzzing highlights tonight and played another fantastic offensive game. Most every game I like to talk about something that makes him special…the reasons why he looks different than other players out there. If you see a replay of tonight’s game, watch his hands as he cuts or comes off screens on the offensive end. He is always ready to receive the ball and shoot. We talk about his quick release and that right there is half of it. He wastes no time. He knows where the ball should be before it’s thrown to him and he paints a target for his teammates. Rudy was a little overmatched tonight on defense but that’s fair, considering the choices for him to guard were Ron Artest, Tracy McGrady, or Aaron Brooks. He seemed to have the hardest time with Brooks and his fast feet. I thought he did reasonably well on McGrady and Artest, especially for a first look. In any case, he made them look more foolish than they made him look by a long shot.
--Travis Outlaw…SHUT UP! You did not just do that! I can’t help but think Trout was a little disappointed with his performance in the Utah game. When he was inserted in the first quarter he came in ready. My favorite part of his spectacular early performance was that it started with rebounding. And we’re not talking the typical Travis “Nobody else is around so I’m going to leap high and slap the ball as I come down making this easy rebound look exciting” boards either. He got in there and fought. It amazes me how these young (getting not so young) players like Travis and Martell will learn this lesson and then forget it. This is definitely the way to earn minutes and make an impression. Don’t just shoot…go get your man and go get the ball! In any case he just tore it up during the first half. His second half was calmer but he played crucial minutes late in regulation and in overtime both. His defensive performance early was so-so but in crunch time he really stepped up. Anyone else love him and Przybilla shutting T-Mac down in the final seconds of overtime, forcing the timeout that eventually led to the Yao Ming shot? 14 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, no turnovers. Standing ovation for Travis tonight.
--You know, Nicolas Batum did not look bad out there. Tracy McGrady drove by him a couple times and Ron Artest bulled over him once but he stuck to his guns, moved his feet, and bothered shots. He also helped up the tempo early. He collected 5 fouls in 20 minutes but that’s going to happen the first time you meet these Houston guys. Overall I’d say he’s earned his minutes and a continued look.
--Steve Blake couldn’t hit from beyond the arc tonight but he had 8 assists. The Blazers went with their all-scoring lineup (Rudy, Roy, Travis) in the critical time but Blake was one of the guys who helped the Blazers hold it together getting there.
--Joel Przybilla had 5 fouls, 6 points, and 6 rebounds. He’s had better statistical nights but he did a marvelous job on Yao Ming. Joel may be the unsung hero tonight.
--Channing Frye shot 50%, had 8 points, and got 5 rebounds in 19 minutes. He’s almost strictly a jump shooter now but that’s really his comfort zone. As long as he hits the boards I don’t mind. He did collect 4 fouls again. I wonder if that’s part of his job description now…use ‘em up.
--Sergio Rodriguez has 6 assists and 3 rebounds and no turnovers in 11 minutes. He’s doing very well with the second-unit offense now…better than Blake would do with that squad I’m thinking. I’m totally comfortable watching him on that end of the court. If you want to know why he didn't get more minutes tonight despite the impressive stats, there are a couple reasons. First Blake was doing well and he had the experience to keep us steady when Houston made their run. Second, as we mentioned above, Nate went with a point-guardless lineup for a while. Third, Sergio is still missing some defensive reads--stepping aside when he should move in or going under picks when he should go over. I think he’s almost to the point with the second unit that his offensive contributions outweigh, or at least balance, that. He’s certainly not the only Blazer with a defensive issue. If he can just improve his defensive recognition a tad he should be ready for a longer look. He’s closer now than he has been and I think if this type of play continues his place in the second unit has been solidified. Nice spark-plug effort from him tonight.
One-Sentence Game Summary:
It’s amazing what a difference one made shot can make in people’s outlook.
Read more of the Rockets reaction at: