The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets, 99-98, in Game 6 at the Moda Center on Friday to advance to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2000.
I promise you, I promise you, that the very first thought that went through my mind was that the Rockets had left too much time on the clock. After 14 years -- more than 5,000 days -- of Portland postseason futility, my first thought was that Houston really should have used up that last second.
The more time that elapses from the final buzzer, the more times that I re-watch the shot, the more effort I put into placing the night's events into a broader context, the more stories and text messages that I swap, the harder it is for me to believe that was my immediate reaction. I promise you -- no matter how improbable it might seem -- that is exactly what I thought.
What would lead any person who has followed the Blazers over the last 14 years to this conclusion? Why would the brain's instantaneous reaction be one of opportunity rather than collapse? Why would I feel confident enough in the analysis to film the final moment, and do so with a steady hand? Why would I expect one of the greatest moments in franchise history to take place, after more than a decade filled with potholes, detours, microfractures and regime changes? Why would I expect this to happen during a season that began with no expectations whatsoever and a postseason that opened with the utmost caution?
I can't explain it, but I promise you that it's true. There's video of me filming the final play, without moving or reacting in any meaningful way, to vouch for my memory. It's an out-of-body experience to watch that tape; in the middle of pandemonium, smack dab in the middle of history, I look like I'm stuck outside a dressing room after getting dragged along on a shopping trip.
To be clear, I am not calling myself Mr. Cleo. I can't read the future, or I wouldn't have predicted Rockets in 6. But, despite being conditioned by years of increasingly insane injuries and matching front-office weirdness, the 2013-14 Blazers -- and one guard in particular -- re-instilled something, unbeknownst to me, that I suppose should be called faith or trust. What else do you call it when your brain decides something before you've had time to really process it?
In recent months, Portland's late-game situations had seen more follies than heroics, but the instant thought -- the gut sensation -- was that Houston had left too much time on the clock, even though we were talking about less than one second.
The Rockets put the ball in James Harden's hands, and that was a scary place for the Blazers on this night. Untrustworthy for much of the series, Harden was borderline magnificent for most of Game 6, posting a game-high 34 points (on 9-for-15 shooting), making decisive reads, finding his touch from deep (4-for-6 from beyond the arc) and getting to the line 12 times. The score tied at 96, Harden created a herky-jerky mid-range jumper from the left elbow, but it rimmed off. Fingertips were on the rebound for Portland, but that wasn't enough, not with the season on the line. Chandler Parsons smartly emerged from the pack with the ball, depositing it home on the open side of the rim. Houston 98, Portland 96. There were 0.9 seconds left.
Too much time.
LaMarcus Aldridge looked down the court, stunned. Wesley Matthews put his hands on his head. Coach Terry Stotts called a timeout with the body language of a frustrated man. Shoulders slumped up and down the bench. The Rockets confidently jogged back towards their end, galloping almost in rhythm. The possibility of a Game 7, back in Texas and riding a two-game losing streak, washed across the entire Blazers team.
"I don't know what was in my mind, I was furious," Matthews remembered, after posting 12 points (on 4-for-13 shooting) and three rebounds. "I couldn't believe that all the work that we put in, the ball bounces their way."
"When Chandler Parsons made that layup, everybody was like, 'Man, we have to go back to Houston'," Lillard remembered.
"We were like, 'We have a 10 a.m. flight back to Houston.' No! I don't want to go back to Houston," Nicolas Batum added.
Too much time.
"I can't say they left too much time, because [the Rockets] didn't plan for that to happen," said Thomas Robinson, after scoring eight points (on 3-for-5 shooting) and providing a jolt of energy early in the fourth quarter. "The way [Houston's last play] happened, it would have hurt [to lose]. It would have hurt. But coach noticed it, he called a timeout."
I'm not saying it was intentional. I am saying, even in the stunned hush that fell when Parsons' shot nestled home, that I thought immediately that he should have taken another dribble, or that the shot should have been tossed a bit higher off the glass, or that the ball should have scooted around the rim for a full rotation. Anything to milk those tenths of seconds.
Any reflexive deflation from the Blazers -- which was unavoidable considering that they were the people who were actually participating in the play -- was gone by the time they broke the huddle. The same early-season endgame success that left me convinced they would find a way to win, or at least extend, this game was apparent in their collective body language, their shared execution, and their fearlessness. This looked like a team that has cheated death before, which it has, and like a team that relished the opportunity to decide its own fate by going last.
Batum set up on the left sideline with the intention of doing something very different than what actually transpired.
"The play was for LaMarcus [Aldridge]," Batum said.
Aldridge was battling with Dwight Howard, looking to establish himself on his favored left block. Perhaps he would get a turnaround jumper off, or maybe a face-up catch-and-shoot try. The body positioning of Terrence Jones, who was guarding Batum, suggested that he expected an entry pass to Aldridge. However, Howard told reporters later that Houston's huddle strategy was clear.
"No threes," he said. "That's the only thing that could have killed us in that moment."
Lillard began the play on the far side of the court, guarded by Parsons. Looping from the right angle back towards the ball, Lillard made Parsons chase him around both Mo Williams and Matthews, although neither player really caught Parsons cleanly with a screen.
"I knew that we would get a shot off. I didn't know the quality of the shot," Lillard said. "Mo and Wes did a great job of trying to screen. I was able to break free."
Coming around the top of the arc, Lillard began clapping his hands. Hard. Courtside video clearly captured the rapid-fire clapping. This was the type of clapping you hear when someone is desperately trying to win a heated argument and there are no rational points left to make; here, the argument was "Give me the f----ing ball."
"We just had one second," Batum said. "You can take only one shot. You can't think. The pressure was on me. I had to take the best decision for us. Don't lose the ball, make a good pass. The season is on the line, on that play."
The clapping likely helped influence the decision, but the space might have been even more important than the noise. Parsons was trailing Lillard by a pace or two, and no one else was stepping forward or switching to make the catch more difficult. Jones was out of position, committed to defending an entry pass rather than a perimeter pass. There was a completely clear sight line from Batum to Lillard, and zero risk of a turnover.
"He came off the screen, that was a decoy play," Batum said. "He was clapping and screaming. He was too open, I had to. ... He was so wide open I had to break the play. I had to. ... [Lillard] stopped being a young player after five games last year, he's elite. The play wasn't for him, but when I saw him wide open, I had no hesitation. I knew he could make that shot."
Houston will spend all summer wondering how they allowed the playbook design to be broken in this way.
"To be honest, I didn't think Damian would come off that open," Stotts admitted. "L.A. was probably the first look but Dame came wide open."
"I came a lot more open than I thought I would. I looked at Nico and clapped my hands," Lillard said. "The rim was right there."
The catch worked directly into the turn, which was a mandatory development given the clock. Lillard wasn't exactly straddling the line but he wasn't in Parkrose either. Most importantly, he wasn't off-balance or overly rushed.
"I got a pretty good look," Lillard said. "I got my feet squared up. It felt good leaving my hands. Once I saw it on line, I said, 'that's got a chance.'"
Parsons flew by with a hand up, but he was too late and he knew it.
"We wanted to keep them occupied on the weakside," Matthews said. "Coach told me and Mo to get Dame open. He broke free, the rest was history. It looked good, the way he shot it, the way it released out of his hand. It looked good."
Lillard hit 40.7 percent of his three-pointers from the left angle zone this season and he took more threes from that area than anywhere else around the arc. Right play, right pass, right player, right shot, wrong defense.
"The Basketball Gods looked out for us," Matthews said. "I don't know if they blew the coverage or what."
"We got as good of a look as we were going to get," Lillard said.
There was no panic. He didn't waste any time, but he didn't race either. The catch became the turn and the turn became the square up and the square up became the release and the release became the flick follow-through.
"His demeanor was never that of a rookie," Matthews said. "His age, he always played with a swagger or an edge. It speaks for itself."
Once Lillard came off so cleanly and Batum hit him in stride, the whole story changed. Arms were raised around the Moda Center as eyes closely followed the path of the ball. Such a good look -- from such an accomplished shooter and such a steady hand -- was not an ordinary last-second prayer.
"He lives for those moments," Stotts said. "It looked good when it left. It's remarkable."
The high-arcing shot swished through perfectly, snapping the net back up towards the rim. The buzzer had sounded by the time the three-pointer went through, Lillard was obviously behind the line, and it was clear that his release had occurred prior to the lights going off. There were no other variables to check; pinch yourself, or go nuts, this was a season-ending knockout blow, a series-clinching three-pointer that will be replayed over and over and over and over.
"That's definitely the biggest shot of my life," Lillard said. "So far."
He was immediately mobbed by his teammates, who didn't bother to wait for a video review, and the bench cleared before the streamers could hit the floor. The pile worked its way all the way down the court as fans cheered, took off their shirts, sprinted through the aisles, dropped to their knees in prayer, hugged and kissed each other, and cried.
"He made the shot and I didn't let him go for about three minutes," Aldridge said.
"We don't think in that moment," said Batum, who finished with nine points (on 4-for-10 shooting), seven assists, two rebounds and two steals. "We're screaming and running and celebrating."
Amid the chaos, Lillard and Howard exchanged some brief words.
"It hurts," said Howard, who scored 26 points (on 10-for-18 shooting) and grabbed 11 rebounds, but still failed to advance in the postseason for the fourth straight year. "I told [Lillard] great series, I was proud of him. Go win the chip."
Talk of a title can and should be jarring for any team that hasn't earned its playoff stripes together. If there was a night to get caught up in the dreams, though, this was it.
"That boy's special," Robinson said. "Seeing him play last year as a rookie, I couldn't see it. OK, he scores, he's a good scoring guard. After being on this team with him, how he works, he likes it, he lives for those moments. He did it so many times already. The fact that he could do it at this moment, like it's a preseason game, it's special. You're not going to see nothing like him for awhile."
They used to say those words about Brandon Roy, of course, and any discussion of Lillard's heroics that failed to mention Roy's dramatic game-winner against the Rockets in 2008 would be lacking. The similarities are spooky.
"I was a huge fan of B. Roy," Lillard said, after tallying 25 points (on 8-for-14 shooting), six rebounds, three assists and three steals. "I'm always on YouTube watching Steve Francis, Allen Iverson and B. Roy, guys like that. I think it was against Houston too. A huge shot, almost the same spot. I definitely remember that shot."
"That's exactly what I said when I came in, talking to Dame," Batum said. "Same shot, same spot, same team, same time on the clock, same area. That was like B. Roy did five years ago."
"He's definitely in the Brandon Roy category for me," said Aldridge, the only player who was on the court for both shots. "Brandon's shot and his shot were very similar. Contested, at the buzzer, from deep. You have to put that shot and his shot up there together."
Roy was further back, he had only 0.8 seconds to work with, and his angle in getting the ball made for a higher degree-of-difficulty. The decisive difference between the two shots? The calendar, as Roy's came in November, while Lillard's found the mark in May.
"This one was bigger because it won us a playoff series," Batum said. "That was the shot of the century for this organization."
Jason Quick of The Oregonian has written that Lillard's shot is the greatest in franchise history, and no obvious alternatives jump to mind. "Buzzer-beating," "game-winning" and "series-clinching" are all impressive descriptors on their own, much less taken altogether. For the record, Lillard's shot was the first series-winning buzzer-beater since Utah Jazz guard John Stockton eliminated the Rockets in 1997.
In an important way, Lillard's shot is enhanced by Roy's shot, just as the final second of Friday's game will enjoy the limelight for decades to come because of the 14 years that preceded it. A proud basketball franchise's eras are set by its postseason successes. Lillard's arrival in 2012, and the housecleaning that surrounded it, began a new chapter for the organization, but his shot ensured that this won't be another half-finished draft in the wastebasket. Lillard's shot, finally, wrote the first, complete chapter since Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals and officially ended the purgatory that followed injuries to Roy and Greg Oden.
"That was such a relief, for all those fans," Batum said. "People screaming outside their house, yelling everywhere. We had the whole state, all Blazers fans supporting us, even France. I got texts from France, my mom is in Africa right now, she was watching the game. Even in Africa they're watching us. I'm happy for this city, they deserve a good basketball team."
"This city has been waiting for this type of moment, this night, for a long time," Aldridge said, after scoring 30 points (on 10-for-26 shooting) and grabbing 13 rebounds, while advancing in the postseason for the first time during his eight-year career. "They're probably still cheering. ... [Advancing] feels good. It feels weird. The people who have been here have had moments where we felt like we should have made it, teams that should have done it in the past. It feels good to finally make that step."
Basketball enthusiasts may debate whether the "clutch" gene exists, but there is no question that Lillard has a star's feel for the moment in his DNA. Even though Portland is relatively new to him, even though his personal trajectory has been a steady rise rather than the up-and-down endured by his older teammates, he showed an innate understanding of how to handle his crowning achievement.
After demanding the ball, taking the shot and securing the win, Lillard shared the glory. "Rip Citayyyyy," he screamed into the microphone, in his second goosebumps-inducing move in less than two minutes.
"The crowd was so into the game, our whole team wanted to get it done for them," he said. "Not only for ourselves, and our group and our locker room, but for our crowd. They show up so consistent for us. They were with us this whole series, they were with us 100 percent. They deserve to be rewarded. Staying out there, rallying with the crowd a little bit, that's what Portland has been looking for for a long time."
He might not have lived through all of it, but he sure seems to get it.
Aldridge wore a wide smile and called Lillard his "little brother." Matthews, who laid out on the floor more times in this series than one can count, thought for a moment -- weighing his role and two humbling lottery trips -- before calling the victory the best of his playing career.
The celebratory on-court scene gave way to a group hug behind closed doors.
"Everybody just embraced each other," Matthews said of the immediate post-game reaction. "Whether someone played zero minutes during the series or 40 minutes a game, someone had a great night or someone didn't, you couldn't tell. It was just pure excitement for each other. All types [of screaming]."
"Everybody specifically thanked everybody else for what they did tonight," Robinson added. "We're all brothers and that's exactly what it felt like. We stuck together. We're happy for each other, one through 15."
Fourteen years is such a long time that retracing those footsteps requires major mile markers. Over the last 14 years, I graduated from high school, graduated from college, voted in four presidential elections, got my first real job, got my first taste of love and heartbreak, underwent heart surgery, lost my grandfather, and somehow found a way to make a living as a writer. I had virtually an entire section of the Rose Garden to myself during the 2005-06 season; I wrote about Roy game-winners and his amnesty departure; I listened as Chad Buchanan clung to the ideal of "Blazers basketball" during the ill-fated 2011-12 season; I wrote an untold number of non-updates about Oden's health.
Still, somehow, I promise you that my first thought was that Houston had left too much time on the clock.
"It went in," Lillard said. "It did feel good when it left my hands."
This city will gladly slide into those hands, setting up shop in those empty palms. Fourteen years is too long for a fan base to wait for such unadulterated euphoria. It's been too long since Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. It's been too long since May mattered. Too much time has passed since a player and team has delivered like this.
Too much time.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 20,204. Best basketball crowd I have ever seen first-hand. The only thing I can compare the atmosphere to was the 2006 World Cup in Germany when I saw the host nation defeat Argentina in the quarterfinals. Wild to see Blazermania right there alongside national pride. The decibel reader hit 121.
- Above, I wrote that people were stripping their clothes off, sprinting, hugging, kissing, praying, and crying. That was not an exaggeration. "This is all fact," as Jay-Z once said.
- The crowd was so amped after the Blazers took a 7-0 lead out of the gate that I felt really bad for two elderly women who arrived a bit late to their seats. They looked at the wall of noise with a look of sheer horror and dread, like they were being asked to identify a dead body. Later, large portions of the section below them would remain standing for much of the second half.
- Wesley Matthews on why this is the greatest moment of his career: "I've been in the second round before but I don't know if I appreciated the playoffs, because I was a rookie. I didn't know how it worked, I just assumed you go to the playoffs, that's what I always watched on TV. To be such a centerpiece and focal point of this team -- I was a rookie my first year in the second round -- to go through trials and tribulations, two seasons where we didn't make the playoffs, and to do it in this fashion, this way. It's up there, it's got to be number one."
- Matthews on whether the series had "drained" him: "Who's drained? I could play another one right now."
- Nicolas Batum, processing the series and the victory: "That's huge. That's huge. A great game, a great series. Four of those games could go either way, five games could go either way. We could have lost the series 4-2. I'm proud of this team. Be happy, enjoy this moment, we can't be satisfied. We just won a playoff series, we didn't win a championship."
- Omer Asik's moving screen foul on LaMarcus Aldridge with under a minute to play was absolutely huge, as it nullified what could have been a game-deciding three-pointer by Jeremy Lin.
- Watching Robin Lopez score back-to-back baskets on James Harden in the fourth quarter was basically basketball porn for most of the crowd.
- We've tried to assemble all the best videos of the game-winning shot right here. The courtside views are amazing.
- Dwight Howard with a classy send-off: "I'd love to see Damian and LaMarcus, now that we're out, winning. I'm friends with both of them and I'd be proud if they could take it."
- Why did Howard think the Rockets lost? His response: "You can't relax."
- Rockets coach Kevin McHale on his team's post-game locker room: "Terrible. How do you think we would be?"
- Here's a side-by-side, synched-up video of Damian Lillard's shot next to Brandon Roy's shot.
- The Blazers will face the winner of the first-round series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks, who are headed to a Game 7 on Sunday. Needless to say, there wasn't anybody talking about match-ups or preferred opponents after this one.
- Here's a screengrab of the Blazersedge homepage on Friday night if you're into saving headlines of important moments.
- The Blazers held a pre-game moment of silence for Dr. Jack Ramsay, who passed away earlier this week after a battle with cancer. They kept Ramsay's banner illuminated throughout the game, which was awesome. There was also a JumboTron tribute to Ramsay which drew a standing ovation. It ended with the words: "820 games, 10 seasons, 1 championship and a lifetime of memories."
- The JumboTron also played clips from the 1977 title game.
- Sagar Trika passed on this video of Rockets fans reacting to the game's final minute.
- Signs: "Not in Jack's house," "It's a great day to be a Blazers fan," "Mega Mo," "Howard? More like How Stupid," "Blast the Rockets back to Houston," "Win this for Jack," "Send them to the moon," "Ain't Worried About Nothin'," "Dwight You Are Overrated," and "I want to T Rob the Cradle."
- One random thought that crossed my mind after this game, which capped an insane week for NBA news: Imagine being disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling and watching an ending like that knowing you'll never get to truly enjoy the sport the same way ever again. For anyone who likes basketball, Friday night represented the game at its best, and it makes you admire the players for being so forceful behind the scenes to protect the sport.
- Nothing on the McMuffin/Chalupa angle. I did get one hilarious Twitter message in reply to all the game-winner talk, which noted that Lillard fell one point short of delivering free food. What a bummer.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Before I want to talk about hte game, I really want to just express how good the Houston Rockets are. It was a great series. Any game could have gone either way. Both teams really played hard. It was a great series and the Houston Rockets, they played a great series so my hat is off to them. But it was a hell of a win obviously and I don't know that it could have been any more dramatic.
It was either L.A. or Damian coming up. You have to have two looks. To be honest, I didn't think Damian would come that open. L.A. was probably the first look but Dame came wide open. So it was one of the two looks.
In those situations, it wasn't about going for the win. Like I said, L.A. with 0.9 seconds, L.A. can get a catch-and-shoot or something can happen down there, but I just wanted to try to get a clean look at the basket.
He lives for those moments. It looked good when it left. It's remarkable. It was a remarkable shot.
Feelings going forward
Go have a beer.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter