The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets, 123-120, in overtime at the Moda Center on Sunday. Portland now holds a 3-1 lead in the first-round playoff series.
The cruelest thing about writing -- and, I suspect, many other professions, not to mention life in general -- is the knowledge that "perfect" doesn't exist. Total satisfaction is an impossible, irritating taunt; you can rework lines and rethink imagery as long as you like, but at some point you inevitably reach the end of the road, when it's time to publish, when it's time to call it good. It's an unsettling moment of settling, followed by relief, or panic, or fear, and, maybe every once in awhile, pride. But, always, a persistent, nagging brain worm that reminds you that something -- some things -- could have been better.
I once visited Finca Vijia, Ernest Hemingway's home in Cuba. His bedroom had a desk, a typewriter, a bed for convenient copulating and, the guide told us, plenty of alcohol on hand. He kept a legendary horde of cats, and enjoyed easy access for fishing, all the world-class cigars he could smoke, and weather that is as good as it gets. One of the all-time greats had fashioned himself a textbook oasis; even with this self-constructed heaven on earth, we know how Hemingway's story ended.
So why bang away at a keyboard when the final product will necessarily have flaws? Why torture yourself knowing that whatever comes out might bother you as you try to fall asleep, or wake you up as a nightmare, or sour your mood the next morning, or make your face turn flush red in embarrassment when you revisit the piece three years later? Writing can be a way to stay sane, or a way to cope, or a process that's so absorbing that it leaves no alternative, or therapy, or a field trip that allows a temporary satisfaction or thrill that just doesn't exist in reality.
Writing can also be a way to improve as a person, to grow and to mature. The more times you fail at achieving perfection in your work, the more apt you are to appreciate the beauty of imperfections everywhere else. Oregonians might have an advantage here -- as we're raised to make the best out of rainy days, with no alternative -- but this is one of those universal "learn as you go" lessons. When you're six or seven years old, Barbie is more beautiful than Mona Lisa. At some point the opposite becomes true and stays true.
Sunday night saw the play of Portland's season, a perfectly imperfect, beautiful mess. Down two points with less than a minute remaining in regulation, Nicolas Batum attempted a three-pointer that missed. When Jeremy Lin, one of the smallest players on the court, came down with the rebound, Portland was staring directly at the possibility of a momentum-shifting loss, with Houston in control of the clock and the possibility of free throws looming.
Perhaps distracted by pressure from Damian Lillard, Lin did not see Mo Williams arcing behind him. Williams strained to poke the ball free and continued to give chase, appearing to step out of bounds on the left sideline as he blindly batted the ball back into the court. Lillard and Wesley Matthews both pawed after it, with Lillard crashing to the floor empty-handed before Matthews came up with the ball and took it towards the rim. His very makeable shot rimmed off, setting up another scramble. Matthews hit the deck in pursuit, helping to deflect the ball to the right baseline, where Lillard was somehow able to track it down.
Lillard moved the ball as quickly as he could out of the pack, finding Nicolas Batum at the right angle. Batum, as has happened so many times this season, instinctively made the extra pass around the perimeter. His pass left much to be desired, though, as it hit Williams on a skip hop near his ankles. Williams, so desperate and frantic in chasing Lin earlier, calmly sidestepped a closing out Lin to line up a three from the left angle.
After all of that, there was no way the shot was going to miss.
"That's us," Batum said. "That's us. That play is our team, all season. We don't give up. We never die."
Lillard added: "Our strength is in our unity, and it showed tonight."
Michael Jordan's 1998 Finals-winner against the Utah Jazz was as close to perfect a shot as the NBA has seen. The stakes were as high as could be, he was as calm and in control as could be, the love tap of Bryon Russell captured his guile, and he completely silenced a totally invested crowd. It was clear this would be an iconic triumph even while he was still holding his release.
By contrast, Williams' shot was pure madness: Lin's mistake; sheer opportunistic, ears-pinned-back hustle; the possible out-of-bounds violation; the fortunate tap back; the missed shot and the flying bodies; the trained ball movement; the flawed set-up pass; and the on-the-money finish. Williams' shot swished through, just like Jordan's, but they were kinetic opposites. Mike can keep his serenity; Mo was revving his jet ski.
"It was desperation," Williams told Blazersedge. "I just saw an opportunity to get a hand on it, because [Lin] was worried about Dame. I got a hand on it. I tried to do what I could to keep it in bounds. I kind of had an idea where Dame was at so I tried to throw it in that direction. I'm glad it got to someone. We got a shot. Wes scrapped for [the rebound]. ... We got it on that possession, the ball swung around, it found its way back to me. I just had to shoot it with confidence. I was struggling to shoot it all day, but at that point you have to shoot it with confidence."
The imperfections and the unexpected are what will endure from the sequence, and I suspect they will be remembered for a long, long time in these parts should Portland complete its first series victory since 2000.
"I was nervous that it was going to end bad for us," LaMarcus Aldridge said, when asked about the play, to which a fan base that clutched its chests and bowed its head in prayer at various points on Sunday can surely nod vigorously in agreement.
These Blazers might not play elite defense, they might get beaten on the glass at times, they might miss some crucial free throws, they might squander leads, they might foul a jump shooter in overtime and, yes, they might even make their own franchise player nervous during the defining play of their entire season. They will not, however, go down without getting dirty.
"That's just dogs right there," Matthews smiled, recalling the play, appearing as content as he's ever looked during his Portland tenure. "That's just dogs. .... Keystone Cops."
The sequence might have boiled down six months of basketball into 20 seconds, but Williams' three-pointer didn't stand as the game-winner. A contest that was filled with stretches of brilliance and stretches of head-scratching muffs by both teams continued into an overtime period, where Portland built a lead and then nearly blew it in dramatic fashion. Aldridge missed two free throws with 11 seconds remaining that could have pushed the lead to six points, and Dorell Wright fouled Troy Daniels during a three-point attempt. Game 3's hero knocked down all three shots; Williams got two points back at the other end after Houston was forced to foul.
That set up one final opportunity for the Rockets, down three with less than 10 seconds left. In a series that has seen three overtimes in four games, was double-overtime in order? If so, could Moda Health please hand out some defibrillators or, at the very least, some oxygen masks?
"Not again," Batum said, when asked what was going through his head. "I'm too tired to go into another overtime. We've got to get a stop. I don't want to go back into overtime."
Patrick Beverley brought the ball up court near the left sideline, hoping to angle towards the middle and perhaps shed Lillard with the help of a screen from James Harden. That's not how it turned out. Matthews blew up the play like an unblocked linebacker capsizing a draw, pouncing at the ball and knocking it free into the backcourt.
"It felt good," Matthews told Blazersedge. "I know [Beverley] didn't see me at all. I don't know what the communication was between him and James, but I know when he came off, he didn't see me. I took my opportunity."
Once again, it was a beautiful mess. Matthews, having just made a game-saving steal that put Portland in full command of this series, couldn't stay on his feet. He stumbled, and fell to the ground, holding onto the ball but causing one more breathless moment for everyone in the building.
"I wanted to be able to run out with it," he said afterwards, "but I got tripped up."
It was so much better this way. It was perfectly imperfect this way. Matthews, lying on the court, where he had spent seemingly half the game, chasing the loose ball at the end of regulation, rolling around with Dwight Howard, diving here, sprawling there. Ending up on his back, watching as the last seconds ticked away and the buzzer finally sounded.
Jordan might have coasted in for a smooth, icing dunk, as he did after stripping Arvydas Sabonis during a November 1995 victory over Portland. But after four games of making Harden's life a living hell, was there a more fitting ending for Matthews? For these Blazers?
"That's what Wes does," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "He has a big heart."
For the first time since I've covered this organization, the Blazers stand on the brink of a series victory. They had the locker room television turned all the way up, gathering around to watch as the TNT crew ran down the wild finish. Their spirits matched the set's volume, even if they stuck tightly to the "Our work isn't done yet" mantra that they've maintained throughout the last few months.
"It is right there," Matthews said of advancing to the Western Conference semifinals, where they would face either the San Antonio Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks.
Flaws and all, Portland has made its breaks in this series, breaks that kept Houston GM Daryl Morey up with "insomnia," as he tweeted early Monday morning. The Blazers might not have played perfectly, but they've made fewer mistakes than Houston, and they haven't broken, not even once. They've embraced their own imperfections, and they seem to have thrived with the resulting peace of mind and the occasional moments of chaos.
"We've got to love it," Batum said. "That's what we're playing for. To play those games. When you dream when you're a kid, watching the NBA, you want to be on the court in those games. We had a lot of fun. We're having more fun than them."
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced at 20,246 (a sellout with standing room only on top). Another great crowd that, like LaMarcus Aldridge, was nervous at many times during this game. There were plenty of anti-ref cheers, including "These -- refs -- suck" and "Bull -- s---" and a chorus of boos as the referees departed at halftime.
- Game highlights are right here.
- In case you want to know what Portland's first home postseason win since 2011 looked like, here you go.
- Signs: Blazers chemistry = rocket science, Dynamite comes in small packages; I love you Mo; We don't ear the floppy beard; Beware of the hair (with a Lopez wig); Win this one for Dr. Jack, Rolo is our Hairo, Happiness is a Blazers win, Wyoming loves the Blazers, We came to see the real Agent 0, and ... Houston Doesn't Recycle.
- By far the best sign, from Haley Bellows: "If I can beat cancer, Rip City can beat Rockets."
- Before his big three-pointer, Mo Williams (nine points on 3-for-11 shooting and three assists) also gave the Blazers a jolt of energy with a third-quarter run-in with Terrence Jones. Williams pressured Jones's dribble near midcourt and Jones responded by trying to clear Williams away with an elbow. The elbow didn't connect but the two exchanged words and received double technical fouls.
- Williams on the exchange: "I thought they were tougher than us the first half. When both teams are competing at a high level, you're going to have those altercations. I just showed I wasn't going to back down. I thought he was over-assertive with the elbow, which maybe I overreacted to. Terrence Jones is a good kid. I kind of like him as a basketball player. But we're on two different teams."
- Rockets coach Kevin McHale wore his emotions on his sleeve during his post-game press conference.
- Portland was really pounded by Houston with second-chance points and Chandler Parsons was everywhere during the first two quarters. Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he thought the difference in the game was Portland's ability to limit Houston's offensive rebounds and open threes in the second half and overtime. Hard to argue with that.
- The Rockets really tried to force-feed Dwight Howard down the stretch, especially after he had two nice isolation scores from the left block, one against LaMarcus Aldridge and one against Robin Lopez. The strategy drew a lot of instant criticism on Twitter, as it was very predictable and sometimes clunky. McHale likely felt as if he had no better option, with James Harden shooting 9-for-21 for 28 points and committing five turnovers, some of which were just terrible.
- Aldridge (29 points on 12-for-23 shooting, 10 rebounds and four blocks) took a flagrant foul 1 to the head/face from Parsons during overtime. I thought the refs made the right assessment based on the "unnecessary contact" guideline that applies to such plays. Aldridge said: "I felt it was a flagrant foul. I couldn't see it, but I felt it."
- Wesley Matthews (21 points on 8-for-15 shooting, four rebounds and four steals) and Nicolas Batum moved quickly to pull Aldridge from an impending stare-down with Chandler. This was Secret Service-like protection.
- Williams addressed the troops at halftime. Matthews joked that he couldn't repeat what Williams had said to the cameras but did say: "In the words of Charles Barkley, we were playing like 'wussies.' That was our message to each other." Barkley recently called the Indiana Pacers "wussies" because the FCC wouldn't let him use the word he wanted to use, which happens to rhyme.
- Aldridge offered the longest explanation of Williams' remarks: "[It was] dramatic. Mo is always talking, for one, but he never screams. Mo was trying to light a fire under everybody. He was telling us we weren't competing at the highest level. He said he's seen every guy on the team including himself compete better than we did in the first half, we all have to try to seize this moment."
- Speaking of Williams, he sought out Troy Daniels for some post-game conversation in front of Houston's bench, an act that appeared to rub many members of the Rockets the wrong way. Williams was pulled away by his teammates and he refused to address the sequence after the game: "I don't know. I don't know. I went to the locker room."
- Nicolas Batum (25 points on 11-for-23 shooting), six rebounds and six assists) had an excellent all-around game. He did very well mixing up his outside looks with drives to the basket, and he finished a greater variety of shots than I can remember in a long time. Batum: "Guys like [Dorell] Wright and Earl Watson told me, 'sometimes you've got to take over. The next five minutes, that's you.' They trust me, they have confidence. At the end, coach told me to take the ball and get in a pick-and-roll with L.A. If coach told me that, Dame told me to get the ball in overtime, that gives you a lot of confidence."
- Alex Morgan and other members of the Portland Thorns were in attendance.
- You had to love this guy (click to enlarge)...
- This Dwight Howard missed dunk made the crowd explode almost as loud as I've ever heard it.
- Great shot of the introductions from @503tk.
- Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com writes that Robin Lopez is thinking big: "There's going to be tough times, there's going to be obstacles, but why not aim for the trophy this year? I don't think we've discounted our chances at any point. Honestly, we just want to keep winning as many games as possible. Winning it all is what we're striving for."
- Totally unrelated to Blazers/Rockets, I have no idea how the Clippers were able to play their Game 4 on Sunday against the Warriors with the Donald Sterling mess hanging over them. After devoting roughly 14 straight hours to the story on Saturday and another four hours or so on Sunday -- from the comfort of my living room and with no connection to Sterling whatsoever -- I will admit being a little out of it mentally pre-game. Best wishes to the Clippers players and coach Doc Rivers, one of the league's best quotes.
- Remember, as Billy Witz points out for the New York Times, Sterling once put Blazers assistant coach Kim Hughes in an awful, awful spot...
When Kim Hughes, then an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, was found to have prostate cancer on the eve of training camp in 2004, he learned what it was like to work in Donald Sterling's world.
Hughes wanted to postpone surgery. The disease ran in the family, usually slowly. But after Coach Mike Dunleavy encouraged Hughes to get another opinion, the second doctor urged Hughes to have surgery quickly. When Hughes contacted the Clippers about his health insurance coverage, he was told the surgery was not covered. If they made an exception for him, they would have to do so for everyone.
The cost would be $70,000.
Hughes went ahead and had the surgery anyway. Unknown to him, four players - Chris Kaman, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand and Marko Jaric - chipped in to cover Hughes's cost for the operation.
- Nothing on the Chalupa/McMuffin front.
- Dwight Howard (25 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks) told reporters that he remains "very confident" but, during the same post-game session, he seemed to consider the possibility of defeat. "There's been guys that have been in the league for 15 or 16 years that didn't get a ring. It took Dirk [Nowitzki] until his 14th or 13th year to get a ring. Nothing is promised. You can't take any moment, any series, any team, any minute on a court for granted. You have to go at it. That's the mindset. You have to stay focused and stay positive."
- Howard also said: "It's like we're giving games away."
- I asked Aldridge if he was starting to taste the second round after talking about it as a goal for a full year now: "No. You've got to stay in the moment. Stay humble and hungry. This team is very good and we haven't finished it out yet. .. I don't think anybody is satisfied. We're not celebrating too early. We still have some work to do."
- Batum on whether he can taste it: "One more game to win. We haven't done anything yet. It's the first to four. One more win to do. It's going to be a huge battle down there. ... Their two best players have been to the NBA Finals. They know what they have to do, what it takes."
- Matthews on whether he can taste it: "We have a lot of work to do. We're up 3-1 but that doesn't mean anything, that doesn't seal anything.
- Aldridge on the missed free throws: "I was mad at myself. As a leader of this team, I have to be better, I have to make those shots. I was mad at myself. I didn't at least make one. I'm better than that and I will be better than that. I missed the first one, I shot it normal, it was messing with my head, I don't know what I did on the second one."
- Williams on closing out a series: "It's the hardest thing. Teams are paying for their life. They're going to be desperate. They may do uncharacteristic things that may work to their advantage. We have to match the intensity. ... The 4 vs. 5 matchup is always like this. My last 4 vs. 5 matchup, a few years ago, the lockout season, we [the Clippers] played Memphis in that seven-game series. That was a battle. We fought and fought that whole series. Whoever gets the inch. Whoever takes the last inch is going to get that game."
- Batum laughed when asked if he was drawing inspiration from Chandler Parsons' "I'm the best small forward" comment from earlier in the series: "My goal is to be the best team at the end, not the best small forward."
- What a game.
- What a game flow chart.
- And what a watch.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's another terrific game. I think it's obvious that both teams are pretty evenly matched. I was really proud of the way we played in the second half. I thought we showed a lot of heart and determination to get back into the game. Even having the lead at the end of regulation, losing the lead in overtime, we made a lot of big plays. Wes Matthews was terrific tonight, L.A., Nic, Dame, everybody who played made a strong contribution. Thomas Robinson coming off the bench in the second half, giving us a spark. There were a lot of good things, a lot of things to be proud of. We know we're not there yet. We've got to go down to Houston and get one there.
Getting LaMarcus Aldridge going
We're a team. Getting anybody going, it's important that we make plays, that we're aggressive. When we're aggressive, opportunities open up for anybody, whether L.A., Dame, Nic or Wes. Whoever it is. As long as we're aggressive, opportunities will come up for us.
Wesley Matthews's will
Wes has a big heart. He was taking criticism for his offense in the first three games. His defense has been solid every game. I don't think any of us were concerned about his offense. He came out determined to make plays at both ends. That's what Wes does. He has a big heart.
Nicolas Batum turning it on in Games 3 and 4
I don't know. He's being aggressive going to the basket. The last two games, fourth quarter and overtime, have been with small lineups that open up driving opportunities and getting to the rim. When you play a spacing lineup those opportunities are going to be there. Nic provides us with a lot of things. I know a lot of people get caught up whether he shoots or takes enough shots, he plays the game the right way and looks for the opportunities to make the team better.
Being up 3-1 in a series with games that seem to follow similar scripts
Same scripts, I don't know. We're very evenly matched, players and teams don't really change who they are. Both teams are aggressive. I think both teams are playing to their strengths. I don't know if anything surprises me right now. The one thing I did forget to mention: What we did on the defensive boards, limiting their threes and offensive rebounds, second-chance points, in the second half, I thought was the key to the game. We gave them too many threes and too many offensive rebounds in the first half, and we limited that in the second half and overtime.
Robin Lopez on Dwight Howard
Robin really took the challenge. Howard has had a good series so far. Robin knows how important his defense on [Howard] was going to be to our success. He stood up and took the challenge. He was physical, aggressive, made plays that he had to make. I know the team really needed him to play that way.
LaMarcus Aldridge guarding Dwight Howard
L.A. has played him well. I don't necessarily like doing that, throughout the first three quarters, because it does take a toll. [Howard] is a big man. It takes a lot of energy to guard him down there and go down and score for us. L.A. over the course of the series has played him well. It's been one of our advantages.
The crowd has been great. Houston had a homecourt advantage, and we had a homecourt advantage, whether you win or lose, it's not because the crowd wasn't into it. The crowd was terrific last game and tonight. I like the way that everybody rose to the occasion
Ups and downs of season help in a game/series like this?
I think so. I think we're at our best when our backs are to the wall, we have something to prove. Whatever phrase you want to use. We have a determination to us. We know what we have to do and most times we do it.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter