The Portland Trail Blazers walked into Toyota Center in Houston, Texas tonight spoiling for a victory, ready to prove to the world that they not only have a chance in their Best-of-7 series against the Houston Rockets, that they are more than capable of stealing it out from under the Rockets' noses. 3 hours and 21 minutes later, they walked out of the arena with their initial goal achieved: a 122-120 overtime victory and a 1-0 series lead. If the cast of Real World impregnated the Kardashians on Survivor while America's Next Top Model remodeled Honey Boo-Boo's house, it would not generate half the drama that this contest did.
The Blazers opened up the evening showing the Rockets that they didn't care about Houston's strong points, only their weak ones. Portland went internet-chic on offense, posting up Wesley Matthews against the defense of James Harden. The tactic worked well, not so much because Matthews scored but because the Rockets could not secure the offensive glass...a problem which would haunt them throughout the first quarter. If Matthews didn't hit, LaMarcus Aldridge scooped up the rebound and put the ball back in.
After the initial flurry of Matthews possessions, the Blazers showcased their two stars. Both Aldridge and Damian Lillard wheeled into the lane for scores in traffic, Aldridge frequently drawing fouls as he did so. The refs signaled early that contact in the lane would be penalized and Portland took full advantage.
Between Aldridge's scoring, offensive rebounding, and a 10-0 free throw advantage the Blazers built a 15-8 lead halfway through the period and maintained the margin, 27-20, as the quarter came to a close. This lead was abetted by the Rockets who, perhaps overconfident or mis-reading the situation, mostly seemed content to shoot jumpers or force slow post plays against a waiting defense. Every time Houston did get a half-step on their drives they came up with a bucket at the rim. The Blazers weren't stopping penetration. But Houston never responded, hamstrung by their choices or turnovers, and left a limp impression after one.
The second period was a completely different story. The Rockets surged ahead, erasing Portland's lead before the 4:00 mark behind dominant rebounding and enough slashing to turn the lane into a B-grade horror flick starring Portland defenders as the scream queens.
Without second-chance points, without forced turnovers, Portland's offense stalled. To their credit, they maintained their inside-scoring posture and kept drawing foul shots to accompany intermittent layups. That kept them afloat. But the Rockets bullied them for the first 8 minutes of the quarter, building a 44-37 lead off of layup after layup. It was clearly Houston's most dominant stretch of the entire evening. 9 of their 13 makes in the 29-point period came on layups, dunks, or shots right at the cup. Chandler Parsons carved up Portland's defense on the drive and Dwight Howard spun around and bulled through every defender in his path. A rally in the final 3 minutes--centered around 7 free throw shots--preserved the Blazers and kept the game essentially tied, 49-48 Houston at the half.
Despite that, the Blazers looked to be in a little bit of trouble. Most glaringly, they attempted 17 foul shots in the first half while the Rockets--leading the league in free throw attempts this year--had 0. You knew that wasn't going to last. Plus Houston had carved Portland's defense with ease during that second period while doing a semi-credible job of making Portland work for buckets, particularly by controlling the glass. James Harden had been silent to this point, but Howard looked unstoppable and Parsons was making the Blazers look like a hot mess. The Blazers could walk proudly, having battled the Rockets to a standstill in the half, proving nothing was decided yet. At the same time they needed to turn the tide back to the first period and not fall prey to their faults in the second while dodging the referees, minimizing bench exposure (part of the problem during the Houston run), and not letting those Rockets superstars get out of hand.
The third period got off to a rocky start, heralding a conclusion to this game that could be charitably described as bizarre. It's not so much that things went right for one team and not the other. It's more like nothing went right for anyone...at least not for wrong. It was as if everyone one the court was trapped in an alternate universe where half of their senses (and much of their good sense) was ripped away and they were forced to make do with the rest.
Portland's problems could be summarized as energy, rebounding, and a persistent lack of defense in the lane. The early pep in their step was replaced by walking the ball up the court, setting for slow plays, passing without really attacking. Their rebounding hadn't just left for lunch, it drank six martinis, stayed for dinner service, then took a cab to the strip club and made it rain on the company expense account. Time after time throughout the second half the Rockets invited the Blazers to walk through the door. Time after time the Blazers watched Houston recover a rebound and points they could have prevented. As the game closed the Blazers would miss free throws, cough up critically-timed turnovers, and generally leave themselves vulnerable.
If Portland's problems involved energy and focus, Houston's revolved around what can charitably be described as head-slapping stupidity. They had the Blazers on the ropes midway through the third period, opening up a quick, double-digit lead. Between Howard bending the defense inside, a little bit of reasonable passing, and the ability to score off the drive in almost any circumstance--converting, drawing whistles, or both--the door was open for them. Anything they missed, they rebounded. They appeared to be taking it out of the Blazers physically, leaving Portland searching for answers. But despite gaining a lead while surrounded by low-hanging, readily available sources of scoring the Rockets would devolve into a series of questionable possessions, hoisting jumpers without penetration or pass, running Howard into 1-on-4 traffic, and refusing to drive to their unending, overflowing well in the lane. The seemed to get carried away by the emotion of the moment rather than mastering it, barking at friendly referees, overplaying in inopportune situations and committing fouls, letting important details and the moment drift by the wayside while they were busy woofing or flopping or whatever it is they happened to be doing at the moment. In a game that went into overtime and was ultimately decided by 2 points the Rockets failed to square up on open jumpers, passed like the ball was covered in Krazy-Glue, and just like the Blazers, left the decision in someone else's hands.
With neither team taking clear control of the game for long, both leaving themselves open to forces beyond their control, the guys who ended up having the most say over the game on balance were the officials...something nobody, including the refs themselves, want to see in a playoff situation. But there you have it.
Much will be made about the refs in this game on both sides. That's equal parts true and mistaken focus. When either team played well and wrested control away from the other, the whistles tended to follow. Unfortunately that probably describes 9 of the 29 final minutes of this game. For those other 20 minutes you'd see the Blazers failing to rebound and leaving themselves open to Houston shots in the lane in heavy traffic. Or you'd see the Rockets playing spastic defense or putting up awkward shots and creating contact, looking to get bailed out. Wholly apropos of the situation: the Blazers found themselves down 95-83 with under 6:00 remaining in the game and the strategy that turned it, setting up the run that closed the gap, was Hack-a-Dwight...8 free throws in 2 minutes. It wasn't just a pro wrestling match where the refs were missing calls. The combatants were using the refs to bludgeon each other and get ahead. And the performance of the officials wasn't looking any prettier than the performance of the two teams.
You're going to hear that Aldridge, Howard, Robin Lopez, and Patrick Beverley all fouled out of this game on bogus calls. That's absolutely true in 3.5 of those cases. Aldridge's 6th was a moving screen, a mistaken decision on his part and Damian Lillard's in the backcourt, and was whistled correctly. The problem, of course, is that moving screens don't usually draw a star's 6th foul, let alone in the closing minutes of tight playoff games. You're also going to hear Houston fans complain about the 17-0 first half disparity in foul shots and Blazers fans complain about the 40-22 reversal afterwards. (Though keep in mind, Portland, 8 of those Houston attempts came from intentional hacks on Howard to regain possession.) You'll hear Rockets fans complain about a questionable technical foul on Beverley and Portland fans complain about one later on Lopez. It's all true. This was not a great night for the officials.
In the midst of this you also have to remember that your teams contributed to that mess. Each side wants to paint its own team as the innocent girl skipping through the forest with a basket for grandma, playing wonderful NBA basketball when the other teamed jumped them in wolfish fashion, backed up by their evil friends, the biased refs. Not really. Neither team played that well, nor controlled the game for long enough. Both teams left their fate up in the air and left themselves vulnerable to the vagaries of whistles. Put 4 more playoff trips under the belts of either of these teams tonight and that side would have walked away with a victory, laughing. The refs wouldn't have been a part of it. But neither team has that level of mastery yet. They sowed the seeds for whistles to bloom and they did...semi-disastrously, but pretty close to equally on both sides.
Now here's the good news. Amid this melange of confusion and inexperience and lack of focus and rampant frustration, some truly great performances emerged. Not coincidentally, these belonged to the superstars on both teams. The guys who rise above on a nightly basis carried their teams through the mess and through an exciting finish.
The brightest star on the floor tonight was LaMarcus Aldridge. As the game closed, Comcast Sports' Chris Haynes had the following via Twitter:
LaMarcus Aldridge is not on this planet at the current moment.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) April 21, 2014
That didn't even begin to describe it. Aldridge wasn't in the same universe as anyone else on that floor. He scored 46 with 18 rebounds and 2 blocks, filling every possible need and stepping into every gap his teammates left open. Offense, defense, board work...he was there. The only time he even hinted at suffering came when he was forced to guard Howard straight up. That didn't work. Everything else did, down to the 2-2 three-point shooting. (What? Not fair!)
Howard countered by making hash of every defender the Blazers threw his way. His wounds were self-inflicted, opting to put up a shot against three defenders instead of passing out, for instance. Other than those moments (of which his teammates had their share as well) he was everything advertised. Until, that is, he missed 6 of 8 free throws midway through the fourth and let the Blazers back in it. The foul line is Superman's kryptonite and the Blazers had a briefcase full tonight.
Where Aldridge left off, Damian Lillard picked up tonight. He scored 31 with 9 rebounds and 5 assists. (Those wondering if the refs were in Houston's pocket should note 10 of Lillard's points came off of his 12 foul shots.) Like Howard, Lillard was flawed. The Rockets went at his defense even as he went at theirs. But he kept his head and provided big shots late.
Which brings us to James Harden. He looked good in the boxscore with 27 points, but that came off of 8-28 shooting. His decision-making on offense remained suspect throughout the game, up to and including the final, critical possessions that could have changed the outcome of this game.
As the game closed, leads changed, whistles blew, advantages expanded and contracted again. Through the fourth period and overtime the teams hacked away at each other, intensity building like a flame reaching towards an exposed gas line. Lopez and Howard, Beverley and Lillard, Matthews and Harden...players got into each other and nearly into fights with each other, the refs, or anyone standing too close. What the game lacked in polish it recouped in sheer emotion, effort, and ultimately intensity. The Blazers still couldn't grab a rebound. The Rockets still played offense like they had been lobotomized. The refs still got booed by everybody this side of the Big Bang. Somehow it didn't matter. It was on and nobody was going to stop it. Somebody had to win.
After all the back-and-forth, after all the sweat and controversy, the game came down to 17 seconds in overtime that perfectly encapsulated the evening.
Damian Lillard hit 2 free throws to put his team on top, 121-120. Following a timeout, Houston had the ball with 17 seconds remaining. The Rockets were down by 1. Every single point they had scored in overtime had come off of a drive or at the foul line. The refs had shown themselves more than willing--eager, even--to reward aggressiveness with a whistle. It wasn't just on Houston's end...it was global. 10 of Portland's 16 points in the extra frame would come from lane and foul shots, making a total of 24 out of 30 points scored between the two teams in that fashion. Plus the Blazers hadn't stopped penetration all night and their two interior starters had fouled out, leaving lesser defenders in the lane in positions they weren't used to under stress they had never handled before.
Down 1 with 11 seconds left, did Harden drive? He did not. Did he try to get the ball to Howard, who no-doubt would have been fouled but also might have been able to carry Joel Freeland to an and-one? He did not. Did he force a switch off a screen, did he juke left or right, did he even set foot in the lane? He...did...not. Instead at the barest hint of daylight he lofted a semi-contested three-pointer which back-ironed.
Had this been an isolated incident I wouldn't mention it in detail but seriously, this was Houston's attack all night. Their offense sported more dum-dums than a pediatrician's treat cup and it cost them dearly.
But we're not done yet. The rebound caromed long and came to Howard just as Joel Freeland appeared to be treating him like a lineman treats a tackling dummy: arms around him, legs driving, pushing him away. Howard got the rebound anyway and the whistle blew. Against Howard. (Again, had this been isolated we wouldn't draw it out. But welcome to this game. Remember, Rockets fans, Blazer supporters also have complaints. See also: Freeland being in because of a bogus Lopez foul-out.) Howard was disqualified for his 6th foul and Freeland went to the line for 2 shots, of which he hit 1, leaving Portland up 122-120.
Houston had the final chance with 10 seconds remaining but again Harden treated the possession poorly, driving straight into a double-team, getting stuck with his back to the basket, having to hold the ball as precious seconds ticked away, and finally forcing up a desperation leaning turn-around that never had a chance.
Thus ended the game. After all the confusion and glory, the Blazers walked off the court with swagger and determination, owners of a shiny, new series lead. Out of the whole mess, that's the only thing that mattered.
When the schedule for this series was announced, I initially rued the long layoff between Sunday and Wednesday. After that game, I think we need it. This game will be talked about for days. Even disregarding the odd nature of the contest, there's so much more to cover including individual performances and what, if anything, this evening portends for Game 2 and beyond. Those are for later, though. For now, Blazer fans can celebrate (and Rockets fans rue) that Portland has taken their first step towards emerging from this series victorious.
The Dream Shake will have the Houston perspective. Please don't troll them if you check it out. From Portland's view this can be described as the best worst game ever. Since the Rockets lost it, it's the worst worst game ever for Houston fans. Since their issues with the referees will likely be magnified by coming out on the wrong end by 2 points, consider trying to convince them that the refs actually went their way as Exhibit A of trolling.
Timmay's Instant Recap, which included the following update on Patrick Beverley:
Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle reports that Rockets guard Patrick Beverley sprained his right knee late in Game 1 and that he will undergo an MRI on Monday. Beverley previously suffered meniscus damage in his right knee back in March.
Beverley, who tore the meniscus in his right knee on March 27, started limping with 1:04 left in overtime after a contact with LaMarcus Aldridge. Beverley hobbled off the court after fouling out of the game in overtime with 44.5 seconds left.
Rockets center Dwight Howard said the injury to Beverley "hurts" the Rockets moving forward.
"All of us are saddened by the fact that Pat hurt his knee again," Howard said. "I didn't want to see anything happen to him ... It hurts all of us. We just have to step up here as a team and win it for him."
Tomorrow: Breaking down individual performances.