Feel better now? Me too.
Several important things happened for the Blazers tonight.
1. They got off to a good start.
Nicolas Batum's knuckle-crack smack back of Ron Artest's opening layup attempt was the perfect start to the game. It was almost as if he said, "Huh-UH" (wait...he's French..."Mais non!"), making it clear this wasn't going to start out like the last game. The Blazers fought hard the entire period. They didn't necessarily gain separation with their 28-26 margin but the 28 points alone served notice that Houston's defense wasn't going to dictate this game. After that the confidence rolled on throughout the long, drawn-out fight.
2. They rebounded.
Again there wasn't a ton of separation with Houston getting 35 overall rebounds and the Blazers 36, but all of the Portland big men plus Brandon Roy hit the boards hard tonight. LaMarcus Aldridge had 12 rebounds, 10 defensive, and was extra-impressive. The Blazers allowed the Rockets only 4 offensive rebounds...critical as they got only 6 themselves. There was a fight in the trenches tonight and the Blazers did themselves proud.
3. They got some offensive help for Roy.
Everybody's going to point to Brandon's 42 points tonight. That was, indeed, the biggest factor in the game. But the guy who opened up the door for Roy's 42 was LaMarcus Aldridge who got red hot in the first half and ended up with 27 himself. One scorer Houston would have crushed. Two created enough pressure to allow Portland to battle with them.
4. They kept the offense from running through Yao.
Part of this was the Portland defense. Part of it was Houston forgetting how they blew the Blazers out on Saturday. Yao attempted 6 shots tonight. When he goes less than a shot per foot the Rockets aren't going to win.
I was sitting with my friend Photographer Dave watching this game and every time Ron Artest hit a shot in his blistering first quarter run I said, "That's alright. Keep it up. That's good for the Blazers." Poor Dave probably wanted to backhand me across the couch. However, look what happened. Pretty soon Artest started missing those one-on-one looks, finishing the game 8-20. Aaron Brooks got hot too, though his final total of 23 was padded by some last-minute heaves. Nevertheless, he had those 23, Artest had 19...where was the Houston blowout? Oops! No Yao, no win.
5. The Blazers' attack evolved during the course of the game.
Portland started out making hay from the perimeter, stretching the Houston defense. This was good while it lasted, but it soon became apparent that the game was being called in a manner that anybody who drove inside with any speed was going to draw a whistle. The Rockets had this figured out first and started getting in the lane and making a living at the line. The Blazers actually had a superior points in the paint tally but it was getting erased by Houston's free throw advantage. It took Portland a while to adjust. I can imagine the coaches were all but grabbing collars and mashing noses with people in the huddles trying to get them to get aggressive inside. Portland finally got it. The Blazers ended up surpassing Houston in free throw attempts, though technically the final edge was due more to last-second catch-up fouls than the offense. Nevertheless the Blazers adjusted their game to the officials and prospered instead of letting Houston walk away with all the rewards for aggression.
6. The Blazers got some energy off the bench.
Mind you, the entire Blazers bench got outscored by the Houston's two reserve guards alone. This wasn't our best bench showing points-wise. But Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, and Greg Oden all brought energy and life into their shifts. Oden had some nice rebounds and pushed Yao Ming around, even getting into a brief shoving match with him in the second half. Fernandez hit 3 shots and nabbed a couple steals. Outlaw compensated for a rough shooting night by being hyperactive on defense, poking away a key breakaway steal from Luis Scola with 1:05 left in the game. His resulting dunk put the Blazers up 8 and basically salted the game away. These guys all looked ready to play.
7. The Blazers played some defense.
No doubt you raise your eyebrow a little when the opponent shoots 50% for the game. But for significant stretches of the game Portland had Houston where they wanted them: shooting outside over outstretched hands. The Rockets made a bunch of those shots. You still didn't mind them taking them. The Blazers did have defensive breakdowns, particularly on Aaron Brooks. But they also forced Houston into late-clock shots and even a violation or two.
8. The Blazers performed reasonably well with mixed lineups.
We saw a lot of bizarre things out there by regular season standards. Portland played two-center lineups, no-center lineups, and point-guard-free lineups. Coach McMillan substituted non-traditional players at non-traditional times. But this needs to happen in the playoffs. You can't just walk through the normal motions. When the opposing coach throws in Player X you have to come back with Player Y to counter or pursue an advantage. There were hiccups, but for the most part the eight players who played significant minutes took it all in stride. They gave their coach the flexibility to do what was needed, not just what would make them most comfortable.
Besides all that, you have to honor Roy's performance. He started out the game distributing, which actually helped him in the long run. When his teammates scored a little, it was off to the races for him. Once he got rolling nobody could stop him. He knew this was a critical game. He knew who had to win it for this team ultimately. He stepped up. 15-27 field goals, 10-12 free throws, 2-3 threes (including a dagger and a half at the end of the first quarter), 7 rebounds, and 42 points. Does anybody, anywhere want to question whether this guy is legit anymore? At the beginning of this year I heard people flapping their gums about him being overrated. Anyone want to make that argument now? This was the playoffs. This was must-win for Portland. And this was Roy's game. Set him side-by-side with anyone in the league and you wouldn't be ashamed to call him your own. Yes, there are still better, more consistent, and more heralded individual players out there. But you would not be ashamed to have Roy instead of them.
This was a great game for the Blazers not only because they've now forced a Game 5 at least, but because they've been baptized. They now know what it's like to feel their backs against the wall. They know what it's like to play with playoff intensity. (This was a playoff game if ever I've seen one.) They know what it takes to win a game like this and they have accomplished it. THIS is the long-awaited "playoff experience". No matter what happens for the rest of this series the Blazers have gotten exactly what they needed to get out of it. From the next game onwards, through next season and the next playoffs and beyond, the Blazers will understand what they need to do and work towards in order to be successful.
The vision gets a little longer for this series as well. Coming into this game the Blazers were only as good as their next quarter. Now they have a couple of games to play with. The pressure is actually a little more on Houston right now to keep the homecourt. The Blazers would love 1 of 2 in Houston, knowing still that they have another home game to fall back on should that not happen. The Blazers aren't in control by any means. They may not even be in the passing lane. But at least they've evened the tally. Now you have some breathing room to scheme a win in Houston.
Check out what they're saying over at TheDreamShake.
See the Gameday Threads in all of their glory here.
Best wishes to Dikembe Mutumbo, who went down with a knee injury tonight. Thank you Portland fans for doing the right thing and giving him a standing ovation as he was helped out.
Jersey Contest Scores tonight:
From Afar 52, Total 82
Sir-1 52, Total 77
MavetheGreat 52, Total 64
Tweener 29, Total 54