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LO Recap of Game 5: "We Believe"

That's what Rudy Fernandez had to say after the game about the prospect of going to Houston: "We know Houston is a difficult arena, but we believe. We believe." (That's in Joe Freeman's recap at The O, but you should check out the profile/news piece on Rudy that's also in today's editions.) After a game like Game 5 in the Garden Tuesday night, how do you not believe?

How can you not become vested in these games, your heart pacing with the rhythm of the ups and downs, hoping for the flash of brilliance from these new young guys who like being here and play so hard they remind us of the magic--small m--years of the Blazers? (Don't look at me for sanity; my developing mancrushes are becoming so disconcerting that I squeal like a 14 year old girl when Rudy hits a three).

So when the Olympic half of the Spanish Armada says he believes, who's to argue? It's not so stupid a belief, despite the long struggles for Portland there--after a regular season where they never threatened the Rockets in Houston, in the playoffs they've had at least a couple chances to win each one, and in the last game actually took control late for a few moments before collapsing in a heap of mistakes. 

There are some solid reasons to favor the Blazers just a little in Game 6, not least of which is a momentum shift that places much more of the performance pressure on the Rockets than on Portland. Several recent first round exits have got the fans and local media a bit spooked, to the point where a loss in Game 6 automatically cedes the series back in Oregon. And then there's that whole how-many-minutes-can-Yao-play-before-he-turns-to-salt question, after yet another 40-minute performance.

Blazer fans for their part take some of the same liberties in their assumptions about a Game 7 sure-win scenario, but if Portland falls it will be the end of an enormously successful season, in which every playoff game was gravy to start with. Our fantasies are just that--what-ifs that aren't unreasonable, just way too much to expect. The threat of losing shouldn't be hanging over this team, threatening to discolor the effort of the whole season. It's ALREADY a huge success.

Houston fans, on the other hand, aren't satisfied with another first round exit, nor should they be. To begin with, the Rockets should have been 2nd seed and mauling the Hornets right now, instead of locked in this matchup that gets uglier and more unsure for them by the game. And they've got plenty of experience and defense to be showing well in the second season. In sum, Blazer fans can be loose and accept whatever outcome occurs in the end. Houston's players and coaches will not receive quite the "ah well, great try!" welcome come salarly negotiation time over the summer. 

So this Game 5 win was (natch) pretty freakin' huge. Shall we talk about it a bit? Sure, why not. Let's start below...

{this way to the basement} 

 

 

 

Fans watching the game should have recognized two things pretty early: the Blazer bigs weren't getting the same off-ball fouls that plagued them from the beginning in Houston; and Brandon Roy was sick. Pasty, sluggish, haggard-sick, from non-pork flu symptoms. During the shootaround it looked as if he might not even play, and through much of the first three quarters he was clearly off, missing open foul-liners repeatedly and just not bouncing. (He got better; we'll get to that.)

As quickly as four fouls on Joel and Greg in the first set the stage for Houston in Game 4, their absence impacted the play in Game 5. Both men were able to stand Yao up in the key, fronting him and trying to harrass him on the dribble post-pass, without getting the whistle.

Yao played almost the entire first quarter and took exactly zero shots. After a break he came back in the second and continued to not score with deadly accuracy, putting up his first attempt with 6:18 left in the half. He did get going a little after that, taking advantage of periods when both bigs were out and LaMarcus Aldridge was left with the difficult task of guarding. But his early drought was just the ticket for the Blazers, who shrugged off Luis Scola's 17-point compensation for Yao being covered and led after the first, 29-26. 

Unlike Game 5, where things started off well with jumpers and then dissolved about five minutes later as Joel and Greg began to suffer the calls, this time the Blazers held firm and resisted a full-on Houston run that got them to within three after trailing by 10 with four minutes left in the first. Stoked with a little confidence, the Blazers maintained that 4-7 point lead through the second quarter as LaMarcus began to heat up despite a tweaked elbow, dropping nine in the 2nd to help close out the half up seven, 50-43--that last hoop coming on a sweet drive by Roy to the hole with .7 left after the bucket.

I suppose because they were ahead at the half instead of behind, the Blazers chose the 3rd quarter to do their choking instead of the pivotal fourth. Smart move!--but watching the devolution was angrying up my blood something fierce. The generally non-stealing Rockets started swatting balls away left and right, leading to easy buckets at the other end and, near the end of the quarter, a Brooks three off an LMA turnover to tie the game at 60.

PDX recovered to hold onto a reedlike two-point edge when the quarter ended, but after such consistently strong play for more than a half, the worries (for me at least) had returned. Do they just get too flustered to play their game when it's close and late?

Answer: nope--at least, not when B-Roy has a bottle of Pepto nearby. Boosted by a pregame IV and fortified by a little Big Pink, in the fourth quarter Brandon was a new man. It took a few minutes; the Rockets got over the hump and actually led by four at 68-64 when Roy came back into the game. 

There was one other big difference between this game and the last; in Game 5's fourth quarter it was the Rockets' turn to start committing dumb fouls and taking poor shots. Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes both picked up calls on the same trip, leading to a classic 19-footer that Roy usually hits in his sleep, but on this night was absent until just then. 

That was enough for Adelman, he got Artest and Yao back in quickly to replace the former pair. However, things did not change. Battier fouled Roy for a pair of FT, Lowry tangled with Blake who made one, then switched over to bump into Oden, who hit both of his frees. When Greg tried to flatten Von Wafer's mohawk but slapped the ball away instead, that was it for the second unit; Luis Scola came in and the Rockets took some time to talk.

Having set the pace by repeatedly hammering into the paint, coming out of the TO the natural thing to do would be to start launching open jumpers, right? That's in fact what happened, as Travis hit a big three after missing but catching a break on Brandon's O-reeb and passback. Roy liked that idea, and so tossed one up himself, also driving quickly to the hole to make it 79-68 and forcing yet another Houston TO. They got back within five after Artest, Scola and Brooks gave their last gasps, but by this time the Rockets were well into the penalty, and the Blazers kept attacking. 

Within that final, 15-0 burst to help salt the game away, Oden was key. He handled the tiring Yao, got strong boxout position to gain multiple key rebounds, and used his presence to open up the floor for those longer jumpshots. It was probably his best defensive stretch of the year, right when it was most needed.

Overall in fact, I believe it was the best total team defensive effort the Blazers have played this year. Houston is so difficult to defend because their ability to draw so much attention to Yao and leave multiple shooters open means that defenders have to truly wear themselves out chasing after guys. (Watching Rudy and Brooks chase each other back and forth under the baseline was a riot!) It means the guards and forwards MUST close out quickly, and then jump right back towards the paint and scrounge rebounds.  How'd it work out? LMA 7 REB; Roy 4 REB; Blake 7(!); Rudy 4 and Outlaw 5. Yeah, I'd say they got back. 

Stats aside, you could just tell--Blake was not letting Brooks cruise right by him, Rudy was able to contain Battier in the corners, and as I said Blake found another gear last night. There were very few wide open jumper looks for the Rockets, very few backdoor slams that leave defenders looking and pointing fingers at each other afeterwards. After many games where it looked like the idea was to only contest every other shot, the entire team stepped up all at once and made the difference.

I should also say something about the early insertion of Rudy into the game, replacing a series-ineffective Nic Batum. I love Nic, and he brings superior defense and BBIQ to the court when he plays, but he's too thin and rangy to handle either Artest or Battier, and it was killing the Blazers to have him be muscled around.

Rudy is no lockdown defender, but he certainly held his own--and more than made up for it with his scrappiness, slapping balls away as someone else's man came by, creating good movement off the dribble, and even a couple blocks. He only hit 1-4 from distance, but did so many other things that Nate would have to be a stone cold idiot to not at least extend Rudy's minutes in the same way for Game 6--or even start him. 

And I have to give special props to what I'd call the NBA Live play of the game, midway through the third as the Blazers built their second double-digit lead before falling back again. Blake pulled down a nice rebound (can't remember if it was the one where he BOXED OUT YAO--believe it!), then got it upcourt and set the halfcourt offense for the pick and roll. LaMarcus was the pick man, but before he set the screen he switched to a slip, heading right for the basket and a waiting Yao.

Yao had to be licking his chops, but what he didn't know was that Joel had gone weakside behind him on the post. As LaMarcus received the ball and continued towards the hole, he quickly bounced it to Yao's left and into the stony hands of Joel, who grabbed it with two hands and rammed it home. You can't spell fundamentals without fun, people--and that was a fun play. The knowledgable Garden crowd went apey, Adelman got the TO, and I watched the reply about three more times. Do you know how many times I've beaten Andrew Bynum with the slip and dish in NBA Live? Reality imitates video!

The Blazers have played relatively poorly in both Houston games this series, aided in part by unbalanced officiating and definitely by their own mistakes and jitters. By tomorrow night, I don't expect a miracle--but I expect the team to have mostly shaken off the "can-you-believe-we're-here" vibe and will give the Rockets all they have.

Will it be enough? I want to predict yes, but the odds are not with Portland. Teams up 3-1 almost always win. On the other hand, in a lot of cases they win Game 5, breaking the other team's will and closing the losers out with force. That COULD have happened last night, to this young and inexperienced team. But this Blazers group had suffered and grown enough, taking their lumps and perservering past them. Win or lose, it won't be because Portland didn't come to play. And that's really all we can ask, as the magic continues and we get at least one more chance to exercise our mancrushes and get our squeal on. 

Crossposted at Loaded Orygun...

 

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