In the single most exciting introductory paragraph I've written during my tenure at Blazer's Edge, I have the distinct pleasure of reporting that the Portland Trail Blazers emerged victorious from their series-long struggle with the Houston Rockets tonight. Mired in the midst of despair and facing the prospect of a 7th game on Sunday afternoon, the Blazers called on Damian Lillard for a frantic last chance at victory with 0.9 seconds remaining on the game clock. Their final possession will go down in franchise lore as one of the most memorable, beautiful post-season plays ever witnessed, plus the moment Lillard was confirmed as a larger-than-life star on the national stage. In a heart-stopping procession of games, this one crowned them all.
With a finish so glorious we need not spend many words on the flow of the game in general, but some background will help set the stage.
The Rockets took their customary first-quarter lead courtesy of screens, three-pointers, offensive rebounds, and a rejuvenated James Harden. Harden scored 13 in the period off of triples and foul shots. It looked like his night...a development which had national analysts crowing and Portland fans nervous.
Portland was hardly mute in the opening frame, however. LaMarcus Aldridge announced that his mojo had returned with a variety of spins and jumpers, scoring 10. Damian Lillard stayed relatively quiet during the early minutes but with the Blazers down 8 and 1:01 left on the clock he threw a point-fueled tantrum which included a three, a four-point play, and two free-throws. That's right...notching a couple singles, a triple, and a four-bagger on board, only the lack of a conventional conversion kept Lillard from hitting for the cycle in the final 60 seconds of the first. His contributions still amounted to 9 last-minute points, 11 overall, in the period. Houston led 29-28 after one.
The Rockets duplicated the 29-28 edge in the second period behind even more Harden heroics plus some Dwight Howard inside mastery. Harden alternated jumpers with foul-drawing drives. Howard posted, as per usual. He scored whenever single-covered but the Blazers cramped his style with help, either forcing him to pick up the dribble outside of his comfort zone or trapping him underneath the rim. Even so, the Rockets managed to avoid getting bogged down. They ran the break whenever possible and scooped up even more of those offensive boards to clean up their errant shots.
The Blazers benefited from a slew of foul shots from Aldridge in the second. For a while there he drew a whistle every time a Houston defender breathed in his general direction. Howard and Omer Asik had to sit with foul trouble before the period was through. A couple Portland threes kept momentum and spirits high. Every time Houston threatened to break away, Portland came back. With Aldridge and Lillard having banner games together plus a few calls going their way, things looked bright. Then again Howard and Harden were returning the favor on the other end and Harden was getting calls as well. The overall vibe was positive, but cautious. Nothing was decided as the teams walked into the locker room after two with Portland trailing 58-56.
Following the frenetically-paced first half, both teams came out more careful in transition, more studious on the boards, and more committed to ball control. Tempo and scoring died as the first-half running skirmish became an all-out war. Lack of fast break points, more measured sets, and the chance to establish rebounding position favored the Blazers slightly more than the Rockets, as Houston had made good in all three departments heretofore. But the Rockets were plenty familiar with grind-out ball. Nobody was giving up without a fight and nobody was going with anything but their best shot.
For the Rockets, "best shot" meant even more Howard low-ball and Harden iso-drives. Once again both succeeded as long as they stayed out of traffic. The supporting cast took advantage of a few wide-open looks and easy drives provided by Portland's attention to the stars, but it was clear that the Rockets weren't leaving their fate in the hands of anyone making less that eight figures tonight. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons found the occasional open lane. Omer Asik scored by accident once or twice. But this was the Harden and Howard show and nobody was getting in the way.
Playing against type somewhat, the Blazers followed suit. They scored through Aldridge and Lillard, pausing now and then for a Wesley Matthews jumper or Robin Lopez dunk. LaMarcus brought his usual third-period form, notching 9 while Lillard added 8. Portland squeaked by the Rockets 22-21 in the period, bringing the scoreboard to a nausea-inducing 79-78 tally favoring Houston as the fourth quarter commenced. Could it get any closer?
Yes, it could.
After doinking around with some unsuccessful Jeremy Lin attempts early in the final period, Houston settled down into their endgame. That consisted of the following options, in preferential order:
Dwight Howard 1-on-1
Dwight Howard 1-on-2
Dwight Howard 1-on-3
Howard would make good on the offense, scoring 13 in the period. His teammates managed only 6.
Notably absent: the recently hot and effective Harden. Houston's second star would attempt only 4 shots in the fourth, hitting only 1 layup from among them. Harden would attempt Houston's critical late shots, but he barely touched the ball prior to that. As it turned out, even when Howard's success forced Portland to send the house to defend him, Dwight never re-connected with the best weapon on his side. Howard proved he could score in this game. Harden proved he could score in this game. They still didn't show sustained success together. The resulting 19 points in the period would be nearly enough for the Rockets to squeak their way to Game 7, but only nearly.
Meanwhile, after pitching fastball/faster-ball all game long with the Aldridge/Lillard offense, the Blazers threw Houston a mess of change-ups and curveballs to start the fourth. Heretofore silent partners in Portland's offensive scheme began speaking loudly. Nicolas Batum started the show with a three and a timely pass to Thomas Robinson for a layup. Robinson scored 4 in the early fourth and helped out with opportunistic defense. Mid-quarter the Blazers played matchup offense, setting screens to shift smaller defenders onto bigger men and backing them down into the post. Lopez proved the surprise beneficiary, popping in 6 points of his own on his way to 8 in the period. Between them Batum, Robinson, and Lopez accounted for all 13 of Portland's points in the first 7 minutes of the fourth. They not only kept pace with Howard and company, they built a 4-point lead, 91-87 with 5:03 remaining.
That lead got erased when Howard started bearing down harder. The Rockets would play their hand to the bitter end and do it well. As Howard pounded them on one end Portland's cause fell into doubt on the other. The so-far reliable Aldridge began missing mid-range jumpers badly. Matthews tried to take over but failed. A single free throw from Wes and a Lopez tip provided Portland's only points between the 5:00 mark and halfway through the final minute of the game.
Fortunately for the Blazers, the Rockets weren't hitting their jumpers either. Their inside game was effective as long as their offense remained reasonably diverse, but the Blazers soon sussed out Houston's jump-shooting problem and force-fed defenders into the lane. They made sure nothing within 6 feet of the bucket got up clean, daring Houston to hit anything farther out. The Rockets couldn't. Howard put his team ahead 96-94 with 1:47 remaining and there the score sat as the final minute arrived.
The first play of that last minute almost broke the back of the Blazers but it also highlighted Houston's fragility. Harden entered the ball to Howard deep, as had been the practice all quarter long. The Blazers triple-teamed, help coming from Harden's own man. At first Howard looked to take the ball into the teeth of three defenders, then thought better of it. He still had Harden waiting outside...the guy who had helped carry the team the entire game. A quick pass out would have found Harden open. Instead Howard waited, then spun a cross-court pass to Lin waiting at the weak-side arc. Lin rose for the three-pointer to put his team up by 5 and missed...or rather he missed so badly that the shot banked in. But wait! Omer Asik got caught trying to screen Aldridge off of the play, holding him down. Whether Aldridge could have reached Lin in time was debatable. Whether Asik fouled him wasn't. The end result was an offensive foul, Asik's 6th personal of the game, and a three-pointer waved off. The score remained 96-94.
Following a Portland timeout, Nicolas Batum would provide his last heroic flourish, driving past the lane to the right baseline and lofting a step-back jumper over two defenders to tie the game at 96 with 39 seconds remaining. It was a heck of a shot for a guy who hadn't shown up until the beginning of the quarter and hadn't attempted one since the 10:25 mark.
The next possession saw Blazer nemesis Troy Daniels enter the game. Fortunately for Portland he never touched the ball. Instead Harden missed a 12-footer thanks to Matthews' nice defense. But Howard grabbed yet another offensive rebound, this one potentially a back-breaker. Mercifully he couldn't put it back in thanks to the Portland swarm under the bucket. Aldridge grabbed the rebound off of Howard's miss and handed it to Lillard under the bucket with 28 seconds remaining. This should have set up a nice opportunity for Portland to take the lead. But wait! Lillard had been out of bounds during the scrum for possession and was whistled for failing to re-establish himself before touching the ball. This resulted in a Portland turnover and another chance for Houston. It was the Omer Asik offensive foul turnover in reverse. Portland's cracks were beginning to show as well, not only in failing to secure the board but in the lack of court awareness.
These would be confirmed on the ensuing possession when Harden once again missed a jumper but the Blazers couldn't get the ball back. Lopez appeared to have his hands on it but was heading out of bounds courtesy of heavy contact. He tried to save it. He succeed. But he saved it right to Chandler Parsons. Parsons converted a simple layup and Houston led 98-96. Worse, the rebound and score had taken the clock all the way down to 0.9 seconds.
At this point the story of the game was fairly clear. The Blazers had made heroic defensive stands, fought from every angle, played their best cards on offense. The Rockets had as well. Both teams had also made mistakes. It appeared that the Blazers would end up on the wrong side of that ledger as the entire evening would boil down to 1 or 2 plays, as playoff games often do. The victorious Rockets would be able to forget their 1 or 2 mistakes while the Blazers would have to live with theirs until they could be rectified in Game 7.
If that was the script, somebody forgot to give it to Damian Lillard.
The next 0.9 seconds would re-write Portland's story from one of heroics followed by mistakes to one of mistakes followed by heroics. In the process Portland's playoff lore and Lillard's personal story would gain new, indelible entries. These 0.9 seconds would also teach the Rockets a painful lesson. It doesn't matter how talented you are. Discipline matters. The Rockets have lacked it throughout the series and it would prove their undoing. You can make 1 or 2 mistakes and get away with it, but 3? Well, that's gonna bite you.
The Last Play started with Batum inbounding on the left side following a timeout. The Blazers needed 2 to tie, 3 to win. They stacked up 3 players all the way across the court from Batum, right around the three-point arc. Houston's 3 defenders were similarly bunched. As the official handed Batum the ball, Lillard curled around the assembled group to the outside. Parsons was slow to follow him, realizing a split-second too late that Lillard was now free and running towards the inbounder. Terrence Jones, shielding Batum's inbounds pass, had to protect against a toss to the interior and couldn't shut off the arc as well. The straight pass was wide open. And there was Lillard, headed right at Batum, waving and screaming for the ball. And he was beyond the three-point arc.
The pass flew into Lillard's hands.
You could almost feel Parson's agony as he realized he wasn't going to get there.
Lillard caught, rose, and spun in the same motion. The clock started right on time. So did his release.
Parsons, Howard, Harden, the entire Houston bench and coaching staff turned their heads to follow the flight of the ball, fists clenched, praying that it wasn't on line. Praying that they didn't just blow the game. Praying that they'd get another chance on Sunday.
The answer to that prayer was...no. No more games. No more outcomes left in the hands of referees. No more elbows to the head. No more talk about underdogs and inferior teams. No more longest playoff victory drought in the NBA. And no Game 7. This...is...over. Now.
The dejected Houston players and staff slumped to the floor as the ball swished through the hoop.
Among the rest of the throng, the only person who did not leap in the air at that moment was Lillard himself. He surveyed the court, his opponents, his teammates, and the crowd, turning slowly and walking away from the scene with a look that said, "This is me. This is what I do. If you're surprised, that's on you. So pick your [expletive jaw up and tell me that it's my [expletive] time now."
For everybody else in the house that final horn brought sweet liberation from sweaty, fearful bondage and doubt. Players leaped from the bench as if gravity had dispensed with its immutable law just for this moment. Fans across the arena--and no doubt in bars and on living room couches everywhere--rose and threw up arms in abandon, giving voice to wordless screams of joy. Hands tight and strained for the last hour, doubly so in the final seconds, flew wide and wild and free. Hearts squeezed to a halt during the agonizing flight of the winning shot thundered back to life. Lillard beat his chest and took a victory lap, playing to the crowd as teammates swarmed him and fans pointed in awe.
And finally, at the end, the Rockets--Howard in particular--shook hands and offered hugs of congratulations. They knew it was a hell of a series. Everybody knew it was a hell of a series. If this is among your first, then mark it. You will not see its like very often. Pound for pound, minute for minute, you might not see its like again. The basketball wasn't perfect on either side. Sometimes it wasn't even good by objective standards, but it was evenly-matched, always hard-fought, and absolutely amazing to watch. We have witnessed something special over the last two weeks. How fitting that it should come down to this, a climax for the ages.
Credit for tonight's win goes to Aldridge with 30 points, 13 rebounds, and a lot of help down low when the Blazers trapped Houston big men under the bucket. That was an underrated part of the evening and in many ways of the series. The Rockets were able to bully the Blazers off the ball near the rim. After they caught it, though, Houston never developed the means to convert points. Had they done so, even for a quarter, the outcome of any of these games could have been different.
Obviously Lillard's 25 points and 6-10 shooting from the arc (including that special 6th hit) plus 6 assists made a huge difference as well. Unremarked so far but not unnoticed: Lillard has defended well in general this series and was particularly sharp tonight. He was reading Houston's plays and getting himself in the right position to disrupt them. Playing the same team 6 times in a row probably helps, but don't sleep on Lillard's commitment on that end.
The Three Musketeers of the fourth period--Lopez, Batum, and Robinson--also deserve plenty of credit. This game did indeed come down to 1 or 2 plays. But those three set the table in the fourth, allowing that to happen. Without their timely contributions it would have been 3 or 4 plays...plays the Blazers didn't have in their pockets tonight. Lillard was the star of the evening but he stood on the shoulders of these three in that final period.
Some players had lesser nights but there's no need to dwell on that now. Each had a contribution or two and every player who took the court for the Blazers in this series did something positive. Together it amounted to a 99-98 win this evening, a 4-2 series victory overall, and a trip to the second round.
The Dallas Mavericks managed to fend off the San Antonio Spurs tonight 113-111, so Portland's second-round opponent will not be determined until Sunday. We'll be covering and analyzing the Blazers' next matchup and all of Portland's second-round games in the coming days. For now, it's time to let loose, Blazer fans! Your team has not only advanced in the playoffs but done it in style. Stand up, celebrate, and look forward to two more weeks of crazy playoff basketball.
If not more.
Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review will be well worth a read-through tonight!
The Dream Shake will talk about Houston's end of the deal. Before you go, imagine for a second that Lillard's shot hadn't fallen tonight and that Portland had somehow lost Game 7 as well when you were convinced they would take this series. What would you want to hear from opposing fans right afterwards? Probably not much, not even condolences. Read away, but judge the need to speak accordingly.
Second round, here we come!