The Houston Rockets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 121-116, in overtime at the Moda Center on Friday, taking Game 3 of a first-round playoff series. Portland now leads the series 2-1.
Professional basketball is a star-driven business, the NBA is a star-driven league, the basketball media/technology complex is a star-driven enterprise, Rockets/Blazers has been a star-driven series, the battlefield of Game 3 was defined by star-driven adjustments, and the game's winning play began as a star-driven affair. Within this sprawling monarchical context -- a world where the best player refers to himself as "King" -- there will always be those traditionalists and idealists who see basketball as a democratic affair, a sport that matches the American bootstrap ideal that always pops up in State of the Union addresses, the notion that anyone with talent, hard work and a little bit of luck can achieve his or her dreams.
Game 3 goes out to those traditionalists and idealists, as it was decided by the absolute unlikeliest of unlikely heroes, a man who saved his own team's stars and delivered the killshot directly over the top of an opposing star. Rockets guard Troy Daniels, 22, went undrafted out of VCU, he spent most of his rookie season in the D-League, he didn't make his NBA debut until March 5, he played a grand total of 75 minutes this season, he didn't find out that he would be on Houston's playoff roster until days before the postseason began, and he didn't play a second in Games 1 and 2.
Houston's trade for James Harden led to years of debates, their signing of Dwight Howard came after years of "Dwightmare" rumors, and their late-season addition of Daniels went uncovered by most media outlets, lucky to draw a footnote here or a paragraph there. Daniels is on the books for less than one percent of Howard's $20.5 million salary and a similarly microscopic percentage of Harden's. Daniels isn't nicknamed after a superhero and he doesn't sport a signature facial hair combination; he has a Wikipedia page, but no national advertising campaigns.
"We knew he was a shooter," said Blazers coach Terry Stotts, whose staff has diligently prepared his team for this series. "We don't know what else he could do, but we knew he could shoot."
David, ancient Greek philosophers, Thomas Jefferson and AP US History teachers have a new hardwood hero, a man whose coach, Kevin McHale, simply said "Be ready" before the game and who practically apologized afterwards for not giving Daniels more time to prepare for the postseason stage.
"I told him, 'Young fella, go out there and fight your butt off. I feel bad you weren't with us longer to get more comfortable, but you have to get as comfortable as you can possibly get right now,'" McHale said afterwards. "And he did."
The score was knotted at 116 with less than 30 seconds to play in overtime. McHale had turned to Daniels in regulation because Houston's floor had been cramped in the first two games: Howard could use more space to operate and a struggling Harden needed all the help he could get. Daniels delivered two three-pointers in regulation, which surely inspired some confidence, but his number was called in overtime because Chandler Parsons fouled out with more than three minutes remaining.
Houston's initial action put Harden and Howard into a pick-and-roll. Howard set screen after screen to no avail, and Harden seemed to freeze up in indecision under ball pressure from Nicolas Batum. Howard could only watch as Harden lost his grip on the ball and his balance; Harden could only tumble to the court and watch Mo Williams make a play for the loose ball. Jeremy Lin sensed the unfolding disaster and careened into the action, knocking the ball loose and hopping on it in one motion. Lin -- an undrafted, D-League-trained, rags-to-riches story himself -- then drove hard, but a bit wildly, into multiple defenders. At the last moment, he flipped a pass over the top of Aldridge and back towards the left angle, where Daniels was spotting up all alone.
The shot clock was under five seconds and Houston was unlikely to find a better look than that. This was the quintessential "count down the seconds out loud while playing by yourself" moment that shooters the world over start reciting in Kindergarten. Daniels set his feet and hit the shot, unaffected by Aldridge's close-out attempt.
"We thought Mo would get fouled, we thought he got bumped a little bit," said Aldridge, who finished with 23 points (on 8-for-22 shooting), 10 rebounds and three assists. "We were trying to watch him grab the ball, he lost it. Jeremy Lin drove to the basket, he didn't see anybody, all of a sudden he just saw [Daniels] at the last second. He's a shooter, but you really can't scheme for that. It was a broken play that ended up great for them."
The shot was one part Danny Green, one part Sundiata Gaines and a few heavy doses of testicular fortitude. Two All-NBA performers stymied; two All-Overlooked players salvaging.
"The D-League prepared me for this moment," said Daniels, who finished with nine points (on 3-for-6 shooting) and three rebounds. "I found myself open. Jeremy found me and I hit the shot. It was a shot that I can hit. ... No hesitation. When you're a shooter, you can't hesitate. If I had hesitated, we probably would have lost the game."
The crowd of reporters around his locker was four or five rows deep in a semicircle; Parsons belly-laughed as he confronted the mob after exiting the shower. Minutes later, Daniels would find himself facing a national television audience and a wall of reporters in a press conference. Finally, some nerves, and more than just a hint of them.
Daniels kept his answers as short and sweet as possible, and admitted that he didn't think to celebrate his shot until after he took his cue from a jubilant Harden. The rookie was a good sport, but he looked like a man who wanted to celebrate his shot in solitude.
"Three or four weeks ago I was looking at these guys on TV," he said. "Now they're teammates. It's a dream come true. I never thought I would be in this position."
There aren't many NBA stars who need to take a long look in the mirror quite like Harden, and that's not a subliminal crack at his patented beard. Harden's inefficient shooting, loose ball-handling and piss-poor defense were major factors in Houston's 0-2 deficit; his standing as a fantastic player, one of the league's best guards, remains overshadowed by how much better he can become. Following Game 2, a struggling Harden responded to challenges from a reporter by calling the veteran media member a "Weirdo," a situation that should simply never happen for someone with his talent.
But even Harden -- symbolically and literally sharing the podium stage with Daniels -- understood the moral of Friday's story. He had taken 35 shots, which tied for the second-most attempts in a playoff game over the last decade, and yet he was bailed out by a man who entered Friday's action with 31 career attempts to his name.
"Just a couple weeks ago, [Daniels] was in the D-League," Harden said. "Now he saved our season."
That was no hyperbole. Had the Rockets lost, they would have been facing an 0-3 deficit that no NBA team has ever climbed out of in a seven-game series. Instead, Houston can tie the series and regain homecourt advantage with a victory on Sunday.
"The pressure is on them," Harden claimed, after posting a game-high 37 points (on 13-for-35 shooting), nine rebounds and six assists.
The Blazers did not look like a team that had just endured a gruesome gut punch. Aldridge wore an annoyed look that said, "Did that really just happen?" but there was very little dwelling and few, if any, expressions of regret in the locker room afterwards. The same level-headed steadiness that has seen Portland dig out of deficits in three straight game was on display in all corners, as if Damian Lillard had given a personality transplant to all of his teammates.
It was Aldridge, speaking for the pack, who coolly dismissed Harden's "pressure" notion.
"We're still in control," he said. "The pressure is still on them. They lost two at home. They're trying to come here and take two. They came out and played as they should. They played like they were desperate, like they needed a win, like they didn't want their season to end. We probably didn't set the tone as well as we should have. I know we'll do better next game."
That sounded less like frustration or disappointment, and more like a star eager to restore order to a universe that had been ripped out of his possession.
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced as a sellout (20,302). That figure includes a hefty chunk of standing room only patrons. By far and away the best crowd of the season. There were repeated "M-V-P" chants for LaMarcus Aldridge and "We Are -- Rip City" call-and-respond cheers during the second half. Basketball in Portland at its best.
- Game highlights here via NBA.com.
- The Blazers handed out red glow-in-the-dark thundersticks before the game, which made for a great visual effect in the arena. You never know how well something like that will work beforehand, but it was excellent. Here's a shot. You can click through to enlarge.
Game 3 at the Moda Center pic.twitter.com/LArLb2KULb— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 26, 2014
- Storm Large sang a well-received National Anthem.
- This video will give you a sense for the player introductions, which included four tall screens that beamed out logos and pictures.
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian got a money shot during the introductions.
- The hype was built up so successfully during the introductions that my first thought was that Portland was in position for a double-digit victory. Houston's 9-0 start to open the game, so quickly after all the hoopla, was impressive when it happened and even more impressive in hindsight. Questions about Houston's pride and mental toughness were swirling in the hours before the game; their strong start was an emphatic answer to those who thought they might roll over.
- At the very top of this post I mentioned star-driven adjustments. That was in reference to Rockets coach Kevin McHale deciding to swap Omer Asik into his starting lineup in place of Terrence Jones. The Twin Towers approach gave the Rockets the ability to cover Aldridge with a defender who could take away easy post-up looks while also keeping an imposing weakside defender in place for rebounding and rim-protecting purposes. Houston succeeded in making life more difficult for Aldridge without getting destroyed by leaving Portland's shooters open or getting killed by Portland's offensive rebounding. Aldridge was able to assert himself more in the second half, but he had a number of late attempts rim around and out down the stretch.
- Aldridge on Houston's defense: "They were way more aggressive. They forced me baseline, brought the big baseline. The first half I was just making the read on it. I was more aggressive in the second half, I kind of figured it out a little. On the pick-and-roll, they rotated big to big. They made a point to take me out and not let me get up a lot of shots and not find a good rhythm. ... They were way more locked into me. Everything I did, they were there. They were trying to make everything tough. I'm going to figure it out. I'll do better next game."
- Overall, I thought Portland's handling of the shifting coverage of Aldridge was fairly seamless. Damian Lillard (a team-high 30 points, six rebounds, six assists) didn't waste any time asserting himself -- finding open looks from outside while also aggressively attacking the basket and finishing at the rim -- and Nicolas Batum (26 points, nine rebounds and five assists) delivered in big moments on numerous occasions. The Blazers did well to counter the Rockets' defensive adjustments until very late in the game, when Portland struggled with its execution and settled for some shots they shouldn't have.
- Batum on Portland's offensive shifting of responsibilities: "[The Rockets] have to make adjustments. L.A. averaged 45 points the first two games, they had to make adjustments. He got his shots, maybe he was a little tired tonight. We can't rely on L.A. getting 45 every game. We'd love to but things can happen. The other guys have to step up."
- The other major star-driven adjustment saw McHale put Harden and Howard (24 points, 14 rebounds) into more two-man game situations. That idea fizzled on the final play, until Daniels saved it, but the pairing exploited Portland's pick-and-roll defense and paid dividends multiple times in the second half. It makes all the sense in the world for Houston to keep picking away at that scab as the series continues.
- Lots of signs: Broom shackalacka, Floppy Beard, In it to win it, I'm a fan of Ironman, Houston you have LaProblem, Please believe we will Sweep, This is Rip City not Flop City, Portland makes it rain, Red Hot Rolo, Wes is more, Hey HardenL Duck Dynasty called they want their beard back, Keep Portland Weirdo, Lillard I love You, Failure to Launch, Take the L-Train back to Houston, and LaMazing Lamonster LaMarcus.
- Harden called one reporter a "weirdo" after Game 2 and McHale upped the ante during his pre-game comments: "If you get your ass kicked and you're not frustrated, you're in the wrong business. ... Everybody's frustrated. I'm frustrated. I'm frustrated talking to you [media] clowns." He was sorta joking.
- Ron Wyden and Ndamukong Suh were among the celebrities in attendance.
- The playoffs have already seen a number of four-point plays pulled off by the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Add Mo Williams to that list, as his four-point play with just under eight minutes to play was a key turning point that helped Portland cut into a double-digit Houston lead.
- Patrick Beverley never stops. I'm not sure if this was caught by the television cameras or not, but he played some totally unnecessary defense on Williams well after a timeout had been called. It was chuckle-worthy in person. He is so zoned in.
- Both Aldridge and Lillard had pretty scoop shots down the stretch.
- Lillard was just absolutely torching Harden off the dribble down the stretch. On Twitter, I compared Lillard to a paperboy because he was driving by so fast he might as well throw a newspaper onto the porch to up the degree of difficulty.
- Harden is a difficult guy to read. After three straight games with terrible shooting numbers and pitiful defense, plus a near-turnover on the game's deciding possession, he came back to a Jeremy Lin missed lay-up as his top example of things the Rockets need to clean up. The play in question saw Lin take off in transition with the Rockets up three and less than a minute to go in regulation. Harden: "We were up three, missed layup, we could have ran the clock down a little bit more. Gave them opportunities. Small mental mistakes that we've been going over these last couple days. They're going to have to change and they're going to have to change quick."
- At least Harden didn't mention Lin by name, I guess, but come on...
- Although they didn't hang their heads too much, I'm sure the Blazers would like to have their final three minutes of overtime back. They went scoreless during that stretch and really struggled to initiate possessions.
- Aldridge on the late-game execution: "We executed, we just didn't make any shots. I had one or two shots I missed. We did get denied on a couple of plays, which we have to work on."
- Houston's final play of regulation could have been better. Harden dribbled the ball multiple times so the Rockets couldn't advance the ball to the frontcourt coming out of the timeout, and he also missed a wide open Beverley who had leaked out in transition. All Houston got out of the timeout was a half-court heave that looked like something you would toss up to win a free car during a commercial break.
- A Brandon Roy highlight made a rare appearance during a JumboTron sequence that got the crowd excited.
- Lillard on the mentality entering Game 4: "Nobody said we were going to come out and sweep them. We're lucky that we were able to win two games in Houston and be in the position right now that we're in. It's one game and we've got to move on."
- Batum: "We let that one go."
- Daniels said he had a couple of game-winners in high school. Harden interjected: "It's definitely different in high school, right?"
- The Moda Center's wifi handled Friday's action about as well as Harden handled Lillard on the perimeter.
- I went to check out Troy Daniels's Wikipedia page immediately after the game and found this (click to enlarge)...
- Nothing doing as far as the Chalupa/McMuffin chants.
- Former Blazers guard Nolan Smith hit a crazy game-winner for his Croatian team on Friday.
- It's been a long three years since the Blazers last held a home playoff game in 2011. Since then, I've been lucky enough to see Finals games in Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Dallas, and the historical implications in those games inspired real awe. That said, there's no place quite like home.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was a hard-fought game, a little bit different than the previous two. It was a game that could have gone either way. Ultimately they made some shots in the end. We didn't shoot the ball necessarily well in overtime. None of them are going to be easy. It's part of the playoffs.
We knew he was a shooter. We don't know what else he could do, but we knew he could shoot.
On L.A.'s shot -- Beverley was denying Damian the ball. To be honest, it was an open top of the key jump shot that he can make. It wasn't necessarily the play we had designed but it wasn't necessarily a bad shot. Nic's three at the end, a clean look like that, he was 4-for-8 going into that, I thought that was good execution. Mo set a good screen, Nic made a good read and had a good look.
Much between these teams?
I think we all knew we were very evenly matched, similar in styles. I think these are the games we've got to expect. The extra possessions are going to matter in these games, even though it's a relatively high-scoring game. The extra possessions matter. They did a good job on the offensive rebounds and got second-chance points. We did a good job limiting their easy baskets in transition. It's going to be a hard-fought series. They came out and kind of took it to us early. After that it was just a game that went back and forth.
Houston defending Aldridge
Their post defense was good. He got open looks on pick-and-rolls. When they have the big guys we have to pull them away from the basket. I thought L.A. got good looks on pick-and-rolls, they have a lot of length in their post defense.
Any of the final offensive plays that will keep you awake tonight?
I don't know about keeping me up. I thought we had some good looks down the stretch. Lin, Harden and Daniels made their shots and we didn't. The possession where Mo had the ball, we could have been running the other way with it. Instead, Daniels hits a three. A bounce of the ball here or there makes the difference.
He had it. He lost his balance. I don't know if he got tripped or not. We didn't come up with it.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter