Trailing 3-1 in their series with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Houston Rockets faced an all-hands-on-deck, anything goes elimination game on Wednesday night. That's just what they provided on both counts. Those who tuned in expecting to see a repeat of the first four games were in for a shock. Several unexpected twists would carry Houston to a 108-98 victory, forcing a Game 6 on Friday night.
Comparing the evening to the season-long picture, this game wasn't completely odd. We'd seen most of its major developments before. We just haven't experienced them much them in this series. Consider...
1. This game looked and felt like a regular old NBA contest instead of a roller coaster ride through a dodgeball tournament while being zapped with cardiac paddles. Nowhere to be found: lead changes, last-second miracles, or overtime.
2. The supporting cast for both teams played a major role while stars took a little bit of a back seat.
3. The game was decided by defense more than offense.
And, of course...
4. The Rockets won. (Zing!)
As has been the case throughout the series, the first period featured trends that would prove indicative. The Rockets sent the ball inside to Dwight Howard, expecting him to cash on multiple possessions, which he did. Foul trouble provided the biggest obstacle to Howard tonight. The referees whistled him twice in the first, forcing him to sit. Unfortunately for Portland, this was also true of LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland's super-forward was nowhere near as productive as Howard but he drew whistles just as quickly, forcing his team to play without him. Though Howard would acquit himself well later on, neither player dominated the game.
Lacking their dominant big men, both the Blazers and Rockets cobbled together offense for the remainder of the period and, in many ways, for the remainder of the game. Players with intermittent impact on the series so far--Jeremy Lin, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Robin Lopez--became prime options in a smaller, quicker scoring attack. Pace and permission to score also favored Damian Lillard, who turned in a monstrous 10-point first quarter. Unfortunately the Rockets spread the ball wider and scored easier than Portland did. Instead of spearheading a multi-pronged, momentum-building attack, Lillard ended up bailing out the Blazers, his magnificent performance keeping them close but never putting them ahead.
On a night when the Blazers needed extra help, their bench was nowhere to be found...an inconvenience in the first period which would bloom into a full-blown crisis by game's end. Mo Williams playing the Mo' Worser Blues and his mates followed suit. Dorell Wright...Thomas Robinson...each would step to the plate and whiff, occasionally hitting himself in the back of the head in the process.
As Portland's offensive energy waned towards the end of the first, so did their defensive focus. Even without Howard the Rockets ended up scoring 30 in the period. Lillard led the Blazers to 27. This was actually one of the closer first-quarter gaps the series had seen, but you could tell all was not right in Blazer-land.
The wrongness got exposed in a second period as the Blazers turned over the ball in 6 of their first 8 possessions. Feasting on easy shots, the Houston's lead rocketed to 41-27 before the quarter was 3 minutes old. When they weren't running back for dunks and layups, the Rockets went hard at Aldridge, hoping to draw his third foul. It was a favor Portland could not, or would not, return against Howard. Fortunately Dwight took care of the matter himself, earning an offensive foul against Robinson at the 8:29 mark, But even then the Blazers couldn't take advantage. Houston's own spate of turnovers fueled a brief mid-quarter rally but the Rockets would respond and push the lead as high as 17 before another crazy spree from Lillard would help the Blazers close the gap to 8 at the half.
At that point Houston's 56-48 lead meant less than the manner in which they had acquired it. Their ball movement shone bright when compared to Portland's mistake-filled sets. Rebounding, assists, shooting percentage, and the scoreboard were all going Houston's way. The Blazers had few purchases from which to pry an edge.
The third period would prove the best of the night for the Blazers. Houston once again fed Howard inside. This time keeping under control, he remained on the floor and did his usual damage. But apart from Howard their offense remained slow. Slashes and quick moves in the lane always resulted in scores, but the Rockets seemed determined to grind down low instead. Inevitably they were met by 2-3 Portland defenders and turned away. Howard would score 10 in the period but his sources of help remained sparse until late.
The Blazers, meanwhile, rediscovered their ball movement. They probed the lane with Lopez or Aldridge, forced Houston's defense to sag down, then found open perimeter shooters. Wes Matthews was the main beneficiary of this attack. He'd put down 4 three-pointers in the frame en route to 18 points. (18 points in the quarter)! Nicolas Batum benefited as well, scoring 7. Only a late, 6-point flurry from Jeremy Lin kept the Rockets ahead. after Portland's aerial barrage. Still, Houston's lead had been pared to 5, 82-77, heading to the fourth.
This is normally the time when we describe Portland's late-game comeback and subsequent win. For a while it looked like the dream would come true once again. Lopez and Batum drew fouls and hit shots early in the fourth, scoring 11 between them in the first 4 minutes. The Rockets hit as well but Portland's defense was forcing them into the mid-range and their offense was drifting. At the 8:00 mark the Blazers trailed by 3, 91-88.
For the next 5 minutes Damian Lillard would step up, scoring 8 points. Howard and Parsons answered for Houston, leaving the score 100-98, Rockets after Lillard's last bucket at the 3:39 mark. And with that, the stage was set for the endgame...Portland's strength and Houston's great weakness. It was time for the stars to step forward.
Predictably Houston featured James Harden as their closer. He hadn't been absent from their offense heretofore but he'd not been his usual, ball-dominating self. Picking his timing and using his teammates instead of working against them, Harden would finally shine through for the Rockets tonight, scoring 8 in the final 4 minutes.
Lillard and Aldridge were the obvious counters for the Blazers. Except when it was time to move the scoreboard, nothing happened. Quite literally nothing. The Blazers would not score a single point in the final 3:39 of the game. They tried. Aldridge shot, Lillard too. Twice Aldridge got blocked by Howard, once Lillard got blocked by Harden. In that span the Blazers also missed a couple threes and a jumper.
And that was it. Harden's late barrage combined with some great defense ended up carrying Houston from a 2-point lead to a 10-point, 108-98 victory.
The Blazers didn't exactly put their best basketball on display tonight. Not only did this game provide the largest victory margin in 5 games, it marked the first time either team has been held below 100 points in the series. Tonight was the first time Aldridge has taken fewer than 20 shots, also the first time he's scored fewer than 20 points. This game featured Portland's lowest totals in rebounding of both stripes, bench points, free throws made and attempted, a tie for low in assists and field goal percentage, and the biggest rebounding gap of the series.
Not everything was gloomy, though. Lillard ended up scoring 26 with 7 assists, Matthews 27 off of 5-9 shooting from distance. Batum's 6-10, 15 point night was respectable. Lopez provided 17 points of his own...his best scoring game of the series by far.
With those four contributions the Blazers had the ingredients for a really nice cake: eggs, sugar, oil, even some nifty frosting. The bowl was out, the mixer primed. But when the Blazers went to the pantry, they had no flour. LaMarcus Aldridge shooting 3-12 for 8 points just wasn't enough to bind it together. The bench might have been able to supplement Aldridge's lack of scoring, but Portland's entire reserve unit managed only 2-11 shooting, scoring 5 points between them, adding 5 turnovers and 7 personal fouls in the process.
We should note that Aldridge had a decent rebounding night and a spectacular 4 blocks. His 12 attempts (with only 4 free throws taken besides) was more significant than the low shooting percentage. No matter who else is scoring, no matter how well they're running, the Blazers cannot succeed with LaMarcus touching the ball so little, bailing out of scoring opportunities so much. He attempted less than 17% of the starters' shots this evening, not even a 1/5 share. Houston will take that every day of the week. This wasn't an Aldridge issue alone. His teammates have to recognize how they've scored and won in this series so far and work to get Aldridge involved from more than just mid-range, even if he's not running that hot.
In the end, two conflicting impressions emerged from tonight's game. In itself, this loss wasn't that significant. On Twitter (shameless plug: @DaveDeckard) I opined that this game was the series equivalent of the obligatory second-half comeback every NBA team makes when down by 20. Houston played well but even with the double-digit victory margin their performance was hardly overwhelming. The best part by far was the stalwart and wholly-unprecedented late-game defense, plus Harden finally limiting himself to fewer than 100 shots and actually scoring when his team needed him. We've seen precious little of either in this series and the Rockets will need to prove twice over that they're bankable in those areas. Houston did what they needed to do, but nothing about this night turned the series. They simply gave themselves another chance to try and turn it.
The one curious, perhaps worrisome, aspect of the defeat was the Blazers' hangdog expressions as the game closed. Coach Stotts pulled the starters late. Whether from fatigue or discouragement, they looked just short of despondent. Not frustrated, not angry...more like, "Hey, we're the team of destiny here and this loss wasn't supposed to happen!" Those feelings would not be unusual for a less-experienced team on this kind of semi-unexpected run.
The Blazers will need to remember that this is not a storybook, that "Teams of Destiny" get knocked off by teams who understand how to work, execute, and win a 7-game series. There is no "destiny". There's no storybook here. Games come one at a time and each one is what you make of it. One team will win the fourth game and advance to the next round and the other team won't.
If the Blazers want to keep on the right side of that equation they have to put aside the idea that they were supposed to win Game 5, that they were looking forward to a triumphant plane ride home, that they were going to shock the world in this series. They have to understand that Houston needs 1...2...3 games to win. They got 1, and that;'s it...no more and no less. It doesn't matter which one of those three games Blazers win as long as they get one.
This series, like every series in the history of forever, breaks down to individual games which are won by well-executed basketball.. The Blazers need to forget the fairy tale and the greater meaning. They also need to forget they lost tonight. The only thing they need to do--the same thing they did all year and the same thing they did to get here--is to focus on the next game, play well, and win it.
If carry-over from this loss is one of the dangers for Portland in Game 6, dealing with pressure is the other. The Blazers have done a masterful job of forcing the Rockets under the magnifying glass the entire series. Houston was supposed to win this thing. The Blazers came with a chip on their shoulder and nothing to lose. When Portland stayed close in Game 1 they made the favored Rockets sweat. When the Blazers won it, then took Game 2 as well, they piled a load of stress straight on Houston's back. In most fourth quarters and overtimes since, and in every game overall, the pressure has run Houston's way. The Blazers have felt almost none.
That will change a little bit on Friday night. It's not a must-win for Portland, but if they do lose they know their series lead will be gone and they'll be forced into a Game 7 in Houston on Sunday. That's more burden than they've carried into any game so far. The Rockets, for the most part, have responded poorly when under duress...a great boon to Portland. We're about to see how the untested Blazers fare. In tight game situations they've been better than Houston, a significant advantage. They need to hope that holds for the meta-game as well.
In any case, we're going to find out in two days. It's never fun to lose, but the pleasant side-effect is that we get one more game between these intense and well-matched teams. Victory is sweet. If the Blazers earn it on Friday night it won't be one bit less exciting for the series having been extended tonight.
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What, Dave? You said you're on Twitter?
Why yes I am, inquisitive imaginary reader.
And you talk to people there?
I do! In 140 characters or less.
Are you funny?
Quite! And devilishly handsome too!
Well where do I sign up?
Like I mentioned above, you can follow me @DaveDeckard and you can get updated on every article posted on-site by any author @Blazersedge. If you want to be sublimely happy, follow them both. Also I guarantee a Blazer victory with my 3000th follower, so there's that.