[Update: The NBA has scheduled Game 6 for 6:30 p.m. Pacific, 8:30 Central on Thursday. It will be televised nationally on TNT.]
In the immortal words of Socrates... Ohhhhh, what a rush!
Oh wait. That was Road Warrior Hawk, huh? Who cares...the Blazers WON!!!
The Blazers played a nice game tonight. Instead of fighting straightforward they went right a little, left a little, mixed up their jabs and crosses, and pursued the opponent with an impeccable sense of timing. Houston fought back but wasn't quite sure which way to turn on either end. Coupled with a little old-fashioned grit, it was enough to help the Blazers put the game away and force a sixth game on Thursday night in Houston.
The game started on an interesting note. The Rockets theoretically had no pressure on them tonight. The Blazers theoretically held the weight of the world (or at least the season) on their shoulders. But the Rockets, though pursuing their usual tactic of going inside for easy shots, looked as though they were forcing everything. The Blazers, though attempting the same jumpers as always as the game began, played free and easy. The Rockets started faltering. The Blazers started scoring.
A couple of developments became apparent right away. First of all, Steve Blake wasn't going down without a fight. Instead of dribbling around the perimeter he started taking the ball inside, freeing himself for short jumpers or a teammate for a layup or open shot. Second, the Blazers were committed to getting the ball inside no matter how they had to do it. When Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge got locked down by the Houston defense this inside play took the form of pitches to Joel Przybilla. So be it. He got a layup or two off of those passes but the points were secondary to the message: We're not going to stay away from you tonight.
As the Blazers committed to getting the ball inside a funny thing happened. A strange noise was heard in the Rose Garden...
No, it wasn't the socialite in Row A informing her Twitter following to look for her on camera. It was a referee's whistle. And it wasn't blowing against the Blazers.
So let's get the reffing thing out of the way right away. This was an experienced, good crew. Once they saw that both teams were going to attack they more or less swallowed their whistles for the first quarter and let them play. I am always in favor of this tactic when it's possible, as that's what people pay to see. The Blazers ended up with a 23-10 free throw attempt advantage, so not even the most greedy Blazer fan should be making any negative comments about the officiating tonight. The Rockets' fans are going to complain. That's the way it goes. Unless you want to be total and complete hypocrites as Blazer fans I suggest you take it in stride.
Basically the Blazers made it easy for the referees to blow whistles in their favor tonight. The refs obliged. When the Rockets have done this the refs have obliged them as well. If both teams do it at once we'll have a real contest.
Will the officiating be the same on Thursday? No, it will not. The Blazers know this going in and they better be prepared to keep making it easy for the officials to see things their way sometimes. If not they will suffer the consequences. I think the Blazers showed tonight that it's not all that hard. Just refrain from chucking isolation jumpers from 15-20 feet every time down the floor.
As far as the all-important center position, Joel Przybilla got to play most of the first quarter and logged the second-most minutes tonight (33) of any game in the series. Curiously enough he grabbed his second-fewest total rebounds (6) and by far his fewest rebounds per minute in the series. Yao Ming also had a good night with 15 points and 12 rebounds, so it's not like Joel's extended presence was shutting him down. And Greg Oden picked up as many fouls as usual. Therefore one might conclude that whistles alone (and having the Portland centers on the floor alone) aren't determining the outcomes of these games. Something else is going on here.
That something else was evident throughout the quarter for Portland. The Blazers rebounded and forced turnovers, thus controlling the ball. On offense they moved the ball consistently and decisively, penetrated by foot and air, and hit their shots. This isn't exactly rocket science but the Blazers have made it seem so for much of the series.
Two other developments shaped the first period.
First, we have an announcement to make:
Welcome to the 2009 NBA Playoffs, LaMarcus Aldridge!!!
LMA was as dominant in the first period of this game as we've seen all season. He just destroyed the Rockets with his jumper and his turn-around. The ball going in as it left his hands visibly eased the pressure on every other Blazer on the floor. LaMarcus carrying the team, even for a little while, soothed the fear among his teammates that they alone might have to. The Blazers have been trying to establish LaMarcus early in every game. It was incredible to see him finally come through. 25 points and 7 rebounds on the night.
The second development was Rudy Fernandez becoming the first substitute off of the Portland bench, coming in with 6:15 left in the first. He helped ball and player movement, hit the deep ball, and poked away steals...all the usual Rudy stuff. Though he hit only 2-7 shots and committed 3 turnovers he got 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals for the game. He also looked like he wanted to play and belonged playing out there.
It's not like the Rockets ceased fighting back in the face of Portland's offense. They scored 26 in the period to the Blazers' 29. Aaron Brooks was breaking us down. Luis Scola flat-out abused us, feasting on the collapsing defense we threw at Yao and the awkward switches on picks. But Portland will take a 29-26 quarter over a 17-15 one any day against this team.
At the end of the period the Rockets had scored far more in the paint but the Blazers had scored far more from beyond the arc. Slight lead and onward.
The second period, while featuring less offensive success for both teams, enhanced Portland's lead. The main feature of this stanza was the Blazers pushing the tempo consistently. This is another hallmark of Portland's best play that has been largely missing in this series. Whether the point guard was Blake or Sergio, the Blazers ran it up the court and made the Rockets follow. Travis Outlaw, though struggling through another difficult offensive night, helped set the stage by bringing high energy and some nice rebounding. He moved his feet on defense this game, whether guarding his man straight up or helping. Sergio Rodriguez was also active and Steve Blake contributed bail-out jumpers...a necessary part of the Portland safety plan also lacking heretofore.
The Blazers didn't get the ball as deep in this period as they did in the first but they kept moving and didn't settle for early or guarded jumpers and it was enough. They also rebounded and kept the Rockets from scoring easily.
After a 21-17 quarter the lead was extended by 4 and the Blazers walked into the locker room up 7. More importantly for the first time in the series we were able to say that the Blazers controlled an entire half and forced Houston to compensate instead of vice-versa.
Something I should have mentioned before the game and neglected to is that there is often a pattern in these elimination games. The team facing elimination will come out with a great burst of energy and build a lead. Everything is on track for another game. But the team that's ahead in the series weathers the storm, waits for the early energy and enthusiasm to dissipate, and slowly reels in the streaking underdogs. As soon as the dominant team erases the deficit and takes the lead the underdog crumbles and there you have it. Game over, series over, the underdog's fans are left crying and wondering what just happened.
Perhaps you'll understand the justifiable nervousness, then, when the Rockets held Portland to 14 points in the third quarter. Brandon Roy tried to score to keep the momentum going but he looked tired and could only manage long jumpers which fell short. The Blazers also turned the ball over frequently in the period. Meanwhile the Rockets either got the ball to Yao or found interior shots. The Rockets also started grabbing rebounds. All of this spelled trouble for the Blazers.
Three things kept Portland in the game. First, LaMarcus continued to score. He was responsible for 10 of the Blazers' 14 points in the period and assisted on 2 more. He was really the only offensive bright spot. Second the Blazers played good team defense despite the offensive slump. Even though Houston was playing to their strengths Portland didn't let them get anything easy. Third, as the period progressed Aaron Brooks decided he would be one of the main catalysts of the comeback. You may remember at the beginning of the series (and even as Brooks was scoring 20+ in those first games) I mentioned something about not fearing Brooks being the main guy because eventually that would turn to the Blazers' good. Tonight was one of those nights. The speedy point guard went "Clang! Clang! Clang!" far more than the trolley.
The end result was the Rockets only managing 19 to Portland's 14. The lead was down to 2 but Portland still held on.
The Blazers actually lost the lead in the fourth quarter as they began the period shooting outside. When Von Wafer hit a jumper to push it to 68-64 Houston with 9:33 left Blazer fans let out a collective groan. However this was not going to be Houston's night.
After slumbering all game long Brandon Roy finally came to life fully. He started blistering the Rockets in every conceivable way: inside, outside, upside-down...uptown, downtown, all around town. Though he connected on only 9 of 20 shots for the night he provided 14 points in the quarter to finish with 25 overall. Meanwhile Greg Oden showed some life and aggression on both ends and on the boards. Joel Przybilla continued that them when he subbed back in. With both the interior and exterior working and the Blazers committing to defense as they had all game, they took the lead back from the Rockets and never relinquished it. This is no mean feat. They could have given up when Houston came back. They didn't. They took the game.
The final result was a 24-15 quarter in Portland's favor and an 11-point win overall.
The difference in this game from games previous was first commitment to a winning style: inside-out movement on offense, drives and interior plays to draw fouls, energy on defense, rebounding. The second and third elements were confidence and perseverance. A huge slice of the credit goes to Brandon Roy's supporting cast, all of whom gave something important in this game. None of them outside of LaMarcus had what you'd call a perfect, or even a stand-out, game. But every one of them played better than they have in previous games and kept the proceedings energized and relatively mistake-free.
Since I often find myself frustrated by announcers I want to give a shout out to NBA TV's Rick Kamla, who called this game along with former Blazer Steve Smith. Since most of you will have watched the local feed with Mike and Mike, I'll explain. Kamla doesn't have the typical resonant voice of a broadcaster. He doesn't employ catchy phrases to describe the action and get over. He brings enthusiasm and more importantly a real, deep knowledge of the players in the game, up to and including the deep bench guys. His roots are showing. He actually knows his stuff...and not just in the "I asked the opposing announcing crew for tips an hour before the game" way. I hope Rick sees this and I hope the networks are listening. I don't know if I'm a typical viewer or not but I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that I could stand a little less resonance. I could live without the catchphrases. And I've had more than my fill of "personalities" trying to make a name for themselves (or hold onto those names) by interjecting themselves into the action. Give me simple. Give me knowledgeable. Give me a guy who knows when to throw to the color analyst. And give me a guy who sounds like he's enjoying calling the game. Give Rick Kamla a chance to do more games.
So now it's on to Game 6. Hopefully the Blazers can bottle the enthusiasm and some of the lessons they learned and cart both down to Houston. Expecting a win would be a bit much, but if it's another close game you have to think the Blazers have more of a chance now that they know what it's like to tear a game away from the Rockets. Either way, they've given us just what we wanted: a chance to sit on the edge of our seats and root for them again.
Check out the Gameday Threads here.
The Jersey Contest playoff results and standings:
- Sir-1 63, Total= 267
- FromAfar 70, Total = 238
- Tweener 77, Total = 236
- MavetheGreat 33, Total = 208
The next form follows the last in that it has three "Will the Blazers win?" questions plus a question about the plus-minus of the players. Anything could happen yet. It's not over until the Blazers bow out.
Between the playoff write-ups, driving to do radio and the podcast and then returning, and regular work stuff I've had about 10 hours of sleep total over the past three nights, so I am going to pass out now and not wake up until well after the sun. Thank goodness the Blazers have given me something pleasant to dream about.
A happy Tuesday night and Wednesday morning to you all. Enjoy the good feelings.