Toss out the scrambling, wild, and unforgettable sequences that have culminated at the end of almost every game. Forget the officiating that may or may not have impacted the outcome of otherwise unbelievable games. Put aside the up and down, heart stopping, momentum changing, and jaw dropping sequences that have been littered throughout each and every minute of every game in this series and understand one thing… No matter what has transpired, Houston dominating the offensive glass, Troy Daniels coming out of a parallel dimension where Kevin McHale makes sound coaching decisions, or James Harden eschewing every bit of statistical data and taking mid-range jumpers, one consistent remains- the Portland Trail Blazers have won every 4th quarter. Let that sink in. In a series that has been even across the board, a coin toss on a nightly basis- the Blazers have closed out the final frame scoring more than Houston.
The current incarnation of the Blazers isn’t new to clawing their way back into games- let’s be honest it’s been their mantra all season. At this point Coach Stotts should be bottling up his version of Michael’s "Secret Stuff" packaging it up, marketing it, and selling it for millions and millions as "Halftime Terry’s Amazing Elixir," that’s how used to Blazer comebacks this fan base has become this season. However, the Playoffs are supposed to be a different beast- a magical place where everything you did in the regular season is now said to be meaningless. The Blazers apparently missed the memo. They went from being an overall "positive" 4th quarter team and to a full blown 4th quarter colossus! In this year’s playoffs, only the Toronto Raptors have a higher +/- in the 4th quarter (staggering in itself!). Portland hasn’t been just dominant in the final score for the period, but by almost every metric Portland has been the best 4th quarter team in the league. Just for reference Portland ranks; 4th in field goals made, 1st in 3 point field goals made, 1st in 3 point field goal percentage, 4th in free throws made, 2nd in free throws attempted, 3rd in rebounds, 4th in assists, 1st in blocks, and they have the 4th least turnovers. Houston meanwhile ranks 13th in field goal percentage, 8th in field goals made, dead last in 3 point percentage and assists, while sitting at the top for free throws attempted and made but only 10th in free throw percentage.
There’s a couple factors that are at work here. First of all Portland’s defense turns it up to 11. Much has been made about LaMarcus Aldridge’s offense in this series, but there is no doubt his value in the 4th quarter on the defensive end has been otherworldly. He has managed to slow down Dwight Howard, not stop, consistently bothering him and slapping the ball out of his hands- fouling when Howard gets deep position and putting the terrible free throw shooter at the line- he’s blocked and altered countless shots at the rim in the closing possessions all but sealing Blazer victories, secured rebounds in traffic, and tipped contested rebounds away from the outstretched hands of Rockets players and into the friendly arms of Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Damian Lillard.
The offensive change for Portland really is just as simple as making shots. Portland is shooting 43% from the field and 28.6% from 3 point range in the 1st quarter. Compare that with 48.7% from the field and 46.2% from distance in the 4th period – and it’s easy to see why Portland has won every 4th quarter so far. Portland’s offense becomes (at times) a thing of beauty, the ball whipping around form side to side, finally landing in the hands of an open shooter for 3, or a wing pick an roll between Aldridge and Lillard that ultimately ends with LaMarcus hitting one of the prettiest fade away jumpers the NBA has ever seen. Then, there are times where it just feels like the basketball Gods have stung the Blazers so much in the past decade that they relent and grant the Blazers a fortunate bounce or 6 that ends up stemming the tide. Contrast this with questionable play calling by the McHale lead rockets; consisting of clock chewing isolations, high pick and rolls where only Harden and Howard have any interest in the play, a Jeremy Lin lead expedition into the paint that ultimately leads to a contested jump shot because of bad decision making, or a combination of all of the above (it’s actually happened).
Portland has been on another level to close out games, but where they are at tip-off, well there’s about as many theories for the disappearing Malaysian airline as there are for the Blazers first quarter woes. As dominant as Portland has been in the last stanza, Houston has come out of the gates just as hot. Portland often looks slow, opting for iso-centric plays that don’t test the perimeter defense of the Rockets or pull their big men away from the paint- resulting in challenged and/or rushed shots. While Houston looks like they’ve been possessed by the ghost of Princeton’s offense- consistently finding cutters, moving without the ball, and easily carving up Portland’s defense without really doing anything all that special. I’ll spare the categorical breakdown, just know that Portland has been subpar, while Houston has downright dominant.
While it’s been an absolute delight for cardiologists in and around the Houston and Portland metro areas the past 4 games as they’ve watched their potential client base quadruple, if the Blazers can manage to get things in gear in the early goings and maintain their 4th quarter mojo (as I mentioned here), there’s no reason they can’t walk out of Houston with their first series win since THIS song was #1 .