Don't look now, Portland Trail Blazer fans, but your favorite team is...
Wait. I didn't mean it literally. Yes, you can look. The game is over. The Blazers won! No...Troy Daniels has left the building. He's on his way back to Houston. Yes, enough free throws went in! Just uncover your eyes and look at the boxscore! I promise there's no time left on the clock! Come on...you can do it. Just a little peek. That's it. See? They won! It's safe now.
AHHHH! DANIELS HIT ANOTHER THREE!
No! I'm teasing! Come out from under the bed! I'm sorry. We can clean up that wet spot. In the meantime, have a cookie and I'll tell you about the game.
Rejoice, Portland Trail Blazer fans! Your favorite team just defeated the Houston Rockets for the third time in this Best-of-7 series, taking a commanding 3-1 lead and giving themselves 3 more chances at set point and advancement to the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
This game wasn't easy. The teams required yet another overtime session to settle the score...the 3rd in 4 games so far. But in many ways the 123-120 win mirrored the strengths and inconsistencies both teams have shown throughout the series. If the accompanying heart palpitations weren't so serious, you might almost call the outcome predictable. Portland might not have Houston's number, but they've pretty much got the area code nailed.
The Rockets got off to their typical sterling start in the first quarter. Eschewing their hero-ball isolationism and its accompanying spacing issues, Houston spread the floor, setting screens and passing adeptly. The Blazers haven't dealt with screen plays well all season and they didn't tonight either. Picks freed the Rockets for drives or quick dishes to open three-point shooters. Plenty of those shots fell. When they didn't, Portland's scrambling defense left them ill-prepared to rebound. Houston scooped up offensive boards like so many pennies in a fountain, converting second-chance points in their wake.
On offense, Portland's attack came laced with speed. Making a concerted effort to outrace Houston's bigger defenders has become a major piece of Portland's strategy. With the Rockets starting Omer Asik alongside Dwight Howard, pace becomes a powerful weapon. (Provided the Blazers get the defensive rebound, of course. See above...) When they didn't succeed at beating the Rockets down the court the Blazers went at the defense of James Harden early and often, posting Wesley Matthews or letting Nicolas Batum drive.
The first period ended up being a contest between Houston's offensive rebounding, three-point shooting, and screen-pass halfcourt offense versus Portland's tempo push and wing scoring in the halfcourt. Unfortunately Portland's rebounding issue directly cut into their ability to press their quickness advantage. The Rockets got the better of the deal, leading 29-23 after one.
Houston's rebounding continued unabated in the second quarter. Meanwhile Portland's bench players generated a respectable trickle of points (many of them at the foul line) but allowed the Rockets a torrent. Houston eyed Portland's matchup offense from the first period and decided they could do better, taking the ball at Damian Lillard, Joel Freeland,and Thomas Robinson whenever possible. Once again the Blazers fought hard but the Rockets had the better of things, building their lead to 61-51 at the half.
The third period was a mush-pot of awkwardness. The Rockets started outside, draining jumpers early. They settled down into a more predictable slasher-or-Howard routine as the quarter progressed. The Blazers, meanwhile, started out scoring in the lane with Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge, then drifted to the perimeter, the inverse of Houston.
As the quarter progressed the Rockets ended up going cold, relying on free throws to see them through. The Blazers bench, atoning for their first-half shift, brought energy and intensity, keeping the Rockets at bay. Outside of a couple mid-period threes, Aldridge remained Portland's best hope, scoring 13 in the period.
Even with LaMarcus on fire and the bench playing respectably, the Blazers managed to chisel only 2 points off of Houston's lead as the third quarter came to a close. That is, until 2 seconds before the buzzer. That's when Lillard hit an improbable sideways-drifting three-pointer from the left sideline. This Shot Heard Around the Moda Center announced the always-feared Underdog Declaration of War, which reads something like...
Inasmuch as you have preserved a lead throughout this contest and inasmuch as said lead has been considered "significant", our heretofore understated resistance notwithstanding, we the undersigned do now declare our intention to rob you of such lead, beat you over the head with it, and cruise home to victory while you run home blubbering to your mamas.
--The United Confederation Which You Can Henceforth Call "Daddy"
P.S. Your lead's only 5 now. --DL
And lo, it was true. Every word of it. The Rockets began to look over their shoulders as the fourth period began, Portland trailing only 84-79.
If you've read ANY recap from this series, you don't need me to tell you what happens when the Rockets start getting nervous. Those lovely screens from the first period? Gone. The brilliant spacing that had Portland running after three-pointers they couldn't begin to stop? Gone. Passing? Gone. Instead, what do you get?
Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble Dribble
Contested jump shot!
To Houston's credit, they hit a few of those shots...more than they have in prior games. But open looks disappeared, assists dried up, and inside conversions went the way of the dodo. James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and occasionally Dwight Howard took the ball slowly, methodically, and predictably into defenders who knew they had no intention of giving it up. Houston's field goal conversions tailed off. Portland's blocked shots rose. And FINALLY the Blazers started winning the all-important battle of the boards. In fact "winning" doesn't begin to describe it. They destroyed Houston on the glass in the final period.
Late-quarter free throws kept the Rockets afloat, but when Mo Williams hit a three with 18 seconds remaining to put the Blazers up 105-104, the roof on the Moda Center rose six feet into the air. A final, brilliant block by Aldridge on a driving Harden sealed the game. Blazer fans were slapping high-fives as Houston intentionally fouled Dorell Wright. Wright calmly stepped to the line and...
HIT 1 OF 2? NOOOOOO.
The Blazers' lead sat at 106-104 as Houston took their final possession. Harden drove, finding daylight and summoning help out of Portland's middle. Harden made an easy dish to Howard for a dunk and the game was tied. The Blazers called timeout but the ensuing Mo Williams three missed and this game was headed to overtime.
The Rockets handed the Blazers a huge break at the start of the extra frame as Chandler Parsons committed a completely unnecessary Flagrant 1 foul on an Aldridge drive, giving the Blazers two shots and the ball. Aldridge converted the free throws but Portland turned it over on the play after, refusing the gift and letting the Rockets off the hook early.
After a battle of free throws, Nicolas Batum punished his defenders with a drive and a three-pointer. A Lillard layup pushed Portland's lead to 7. There it would stay until the 1:30 mark, which left far too little time for Houston to....
TROY DANIELS HIT A THREE POINTER? NO!
Well, that's OK because Portland still leads by 4 and....
THE BLAZERS TURNED IT OVER? NOOOOOOO!
Come on now, we can do this! Just play some good defense and...
HARDEN HIT AND NOW THE LEAD IS JUST 2 WITH 1:00 REMAINING????
Excuse me while I go and hyperventilate.
Whoosh-whoo! Whoosh-whoo! Whoosh-whoo!
OK, I think I can finish this now.
LaMarcus Aldridge would miss a well-defended jumper on Portland's next possession, leaving 41 seconds for Houston to tie the game. You would think that the Rockets would want to get a shot up fairly early, maybe leave themselves a 2-for-1. But the Blazers were playing good defense (thank you, Wesley Matthews!) and, well, the Rockets aren't exactly the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. They ended up spending 23 of their 24 seconds, running the game clock down to 17, before Harden missed a not-so-great-looking three-pointer. Portland rebounded, Houston intentionally fouled, and Lillard hit a couple of free throws to push the lead to 121-117. Whew!
With 12 seconds left in the game Parsons barfed up a contested, not-squared 25-footer which was rebounded by Aldridge, who was then fouled. LaMarcus stepped to the line and iced the game by...
MISSING BOTH FREE THROWS???? NOOOOOOOOO!!!!
Following the second miss, Dwight Howard got the rebound in the lane with 11 seconds left and his team down 4. Like Harden in the last game, Howard made the absolutely stupid mistake of advancing the ball before thinking to call timeout, disallowing Houston the opportunity to inbound at halfcourt following the break. Except unlike the last game the officials were apparently watching Coach Kevin McHale instead of the brain-dead Houston players and credited the Rockets with the immediate timeout. They got to take the ball out at halfcourt despite their total lack of awareness.
But that's OK. Only 10 seconds remained. Portland's lead hovered at 4. The Rockets would either have to burn time getting a good look or heave a desperation three. They got the ball to Wunderkind Daniels, who lofted a long three that missed, sewing up the...
WAIT. DORELL WRIGHT FOULED HIM??? ON A THREE? NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
But hey, this kid is fresh out of the D-League. Hitting a three without time for thought is one thing. Having to go to the line and sink three in a row with the weight of the world on your shoulders is...
Ohhhh, don't even bother with the caps anymore. He hit them didn't he?
Yes, he did.
Portland now led by 1. The Rockets fouled Mo Williams with 7 seconds remaining. Mo hit both free throws, leaving Houston a chance to tie with the three. At this point every Blazer fan across the globe was reaching for a defibrillator and some industrial-strength gin.
Commencing the final play, Patrick Beverley took the ball upcourt looking to find the magic shot. But just as he crossed the halfcourt line shadowed by Damian Lillard, Beverley was met by none other than James "I Flunked Remedial Spacing SO HARD" Harden. Evidently Harden was coming to set a screen? Pick up a handoff maybe? In any case, he blew right into Beverley's path, impeding his forward progress, stopping Beverley dead, now unable to go ahead (Harden), left (Lillard), or backwards (half-court line). Beverley only had one out to keep his dribble alive: going right. Sadly for Patrick and the Rockets, trailing in Harden's path like that torpedo behind the submarine in Hunt for Red October was Wesley Matthews. As Beverley made the desperation dive rightward he yelled, "You arrogant ass. You've killed us!" in Harden's general direction. Then Matthews picked the ball right out of Beverley's grasp and ran out the clock. The Rockets never got up that final shot. The Blazers walked away with the win, 123-120.
A kaleidoscope of elation, relief, triumph, and frustration followed the final horn. Trailing most of the game, the Blazers had come off the ropes once again, pushed it into overtime, worked hard, played together, and put the Rockets under enough pressure that they self-destructed. Well-rehearsed in this drama, the Blazers were able to laser in on Houston's weak points: Jeremy Lin turnovers, Chandler Parsons misses, James Harden's lack of court sense and tunnel vision. The only guys Portland didn't exploit were Howard and Daniels. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Portland fouled Howard plenty; he just made his free throws.
Elation belonged to Portland fans. Triumph belonged to the Blazers. Relief was shared by both, as once again the game was a nail-biter. It's not like the Blazers did everything right. But once again the difference in this series became apparent. The Blazers are better at making Houston pay for their mistakes than the Rockets are at making Portland pay for theirs.
As for the frustration? That was all Houston's. Again they had their fingertips on a win. Again they watched the Blazers take it away from them. The second half and overtime unveiled the strongest Portland effort against them so far in the series. Even so the Rockets--equal parts thunder and blunder--cannot get out of their own way.
At this point Houston has to be wondering if they can ever take a win from Portland that isn't a total cakewalk. The Blazers weren't just up in the Rockets jocks tonight, they were in their heads. As the game closed Houston got tighter and tighter, the Blazers more resolute.
Many are saying this series isn't over yet, which is true. But what we said about Portland before this all started we now transfer to Houston. Unless the Rockets change their game and force the Blazers to do likewise, winning this thing is going to be tough for them. Not only will the Rockets have to improve, they're going to have to bear down, focus on every possession, limit mistakes, and work together as a seamless unit without gaps. They can't afford a single mistake. The Rockets haven't been able to manage much more than 12 minutes of good ball at a time...almost none of those good minutes coming under pressure. The idea of them stringing together three 48-minute, must-win performances...well...let's just say the odds look slim.
Returning to tonight's affair, the Blazers and Rockets deadlocked in several key areas. They both hovered around 49% from the field and shot the exact same 40% from the arc. Houston ended up with 14 offensive rebounds to 11 for Portland but considering the early gap, that's a moral victory for the Blazers. Houston went +5 from the foul line but the Blazers had 9 more assists, forced 5 more turnovers, and went +14 in points after turnovers. The Blazers also notched a +7 on the break. It took a while, but Portland's faster and more energetic approach beat the methodical Houston attack.
Individuals of note included LaMarcus Aldridge who scored 29 with 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and some nice late-game defensive stands.
Nicolas Batum scored 25 on a surprising outburst of 23 shots. It looked like Batum came into this game determined to score one somebody...not the worst approach despite his modest efficiency.
Wesley Matthews scored 21 with 4 steals and played the best defensive game on Harden we've seen all series. Harden proved impotent--maybe even an impediment--when it mattered. Some of that reflects his own issues, but Matthews and company are rubbing Harden's nose in those issues. They don't just have him second-guessing, but third- and fourth-guessing his possessions. The guy has fallen apart right before our eyes, and Wes took hammer and chisel to him tonight.
Damian Lillard hit a desperately needed 5-7 from the arc tonight for 23 points with 8 assists. Robin Lopez chipped in 11 rebounds and kept Howard a little busier than he has in prior games.
Total that up and you have the first game of this series where every Portland starter played well.
Portland's bench was not as pretty. Mo Williams shot 3-11 but gets excused for hitting that big triple late in the game. Dorell Wright scored 8 in 18 minutes (off 5-7 free throws) with 4 rebounds and 2 blocks. That looked pretty good compared to his fellow reserves. Thomas Robinson had a HUGE block and 3 rebounds in 6 minutes but also 2 turnovers and 2 fouls. Joel Freeland played 7 minutes with 2 turnovers and 3 fouls. Both will no doubt be glad to see the Rockets in the rear-view mirror.
Fortunately for Portland's reserve bigs, that farewell could happen as early as Wednesday night. The Blazers will try to close out the series in Houston, 6:30 p.m. Pacific. Until then, Blazers fans will just have to bask in the warm glow of yet another win in this thrill-ride of a series.
There are worse ways to spend a three-day break.
The Dream Shake (Be nice!)
I leveled up on Twitter tonight! Thanks to all who follow @DaveDeckard Don't forget you can get instant updates on everything posted on-site by every author @Blazersedge Join the party if you haven't yet. Sure I'm a Level 2 Twitterer now with 2000 followers, more hit points, and better saving throws, but I'll need a lot more than that if I'm to reach my ultimate goal of vanquishing Kim Kardashian and her millions of minions. All followers and their magic items are welcome.