HOUSTON — Before walking onto the court for Game 1 at the Toyota Center in Houston, LaMarcus Aldridge stopped for a moment to joke with Rockets broadcaster and arguably the greatest Trail Blazer in franchise history, Clyde Drexler.
“When I walked by him I said ‘I’m coming for you’ and I meant in every stat possible,” said Aldridge. “He said I still have some work to do, but he said I could do it. I was joking with him about trying to break all of his records.”
Aldridge would break a record Sunday night in Houston, though it was a mark that even The Glide had never achieved in his 12-year career in Portland.
Thanks in large part to a franchise playoff high 46 points from Aldridge, the Trail Blazers were able to overcome a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat the Rockets 122-120 in overtime of Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs. With the win, the Trail Blazers wrestle home court advantage away from Rockets and join the Warriors, Wizards, Hawks and Nets as teams that won Game 1 despite playing on the road.
“I was really proud of the way we competed,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We were kind of down and out at least three times — once in the first half, once in regulation and once in overtime. We stayed together, kept competing. We had guys make big plays, fought through some adversity and foul trouble. It’s good to get a win.”
And one the Trail Blazers could not have gotten without Aldridge, who added 18 rebounds, two assists and two blocks before fouling out in overtime. While he was stellar all night, he was at his best when the Trail Blazers need it most.
Down 13 points with 10:10 to play in regulation, Aldridge checked into the game and immediately went to work, hitting a three-pointer after having netted just three three-pointers throughout the entire course of the 2013-14 season.
“He pulled the three-point shots, he’s been hiding that all season,” said Stotts. “We saved that for the playoffs and I’m glad he pulled hit out for us.”
Aldridge would finish the quarter shooting 7 of 8 from the field and 4 of 5 from the free throw line for 19 of his game-high 46 points.
“It was just one of those nights,” said Aldridge. “I got into a good rhythm and I started to feel good down low and I think my coaches and teammates did a good job trying to find me down low. I was trying to lead tonight.”
While Aldridge was doing his part offensively to get Portland back into the game in the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers coaching staff decided to intentionally foul Houston center Dwight Howard, a career 58 percent free throw shooter, down nine with 4:43 to play in regulation. Howard made his first two free throws in the fourth to put the Rockets up 11, but the Trail Blazers kept fouling in hopes that the averages would eventually catch up to the All-Star center.
And they were right. Howard missed his next four free throws, forcing Rockets coach Kevin McHale to take him out of the game rather than risk the Trail Blazers sending him to the line over and over in the fourth.
“As soon as they were in the bonus, we had to extend the game,” said Stotts. “Whether (Howard) made them or missed then, if he missed one or two, that would be great. But it prolonged the game for us no matter what he did, it gave us more opportunities. That was the thing. Thankfully he made the first two and missed the next four and that kind of got us back into it.”
But there was one other factor that was required for the Trail Blazers to win their first playoff game in Houston in franchise history. That being Damian Lillard, playing in his first career playoff game.
Lillard went 3 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 from three and 3 of 5 from the free throw line to score 10 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter. It was his three-pointer that tied the game at 104-104 with 29 seconds to play in regulation. And even though he couldn’t get a putback off a Wesley Matthews three-pointer with five seconds to play in regulation, he did keep the possession alive long enough for Aldridge to swoop in for a putback of his own, with was the bucket that send the game to overtime.
“Damian rises to the occasion,” said Stotts. “For all the people who were wanting to know if he was ready for the playoffs, I think he answers that question, so we don’t have to answer that anymore. He made big plays. The three was big, getting to the rim was big, making free throws. It was a big time performance.”
The second-year point guard from Weber State would finish with 31 points on 9 of 19 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists in almost 46 minutes. Lillard and Aldridge are the first teammates to score at least 30 points and 45 points in a playoff games since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did so for the Bulls in 1992.
Both Aldridge and Howard would foul out in the overtime, leaving James Harden and Lillard as the game’s only remaining All-Stars. Lillard would score five in overtime, which included two free throws with 17 seconds to play that put Portland up 121-120. Harden, on the other hand, went 0 for 4 and scoreless in OT, missing Houston’s final shot as time expired while being defended by Nicolas Batum.
“We all know he’s a great player, one of the clutches players in the world,” said Batum, who shook off a lackadaisical first half to finish with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. “He made big shots for them all season long. He got one against us a couple of weeks ago … I don’t expect him to miss a lot of shots like this. I’m happy tonight he missed those two shots. I’ve got to say that.”
Harden finished the game with 27 points but shot just 8 of 28 from the field and 3 of 14 from three. Howard also finished with 27 points while also pulling down 15 rebounds and blocking four shots before fouling out late in the overtime period. Chandler Parsons added 24 points and six rebounds in the losing effort.
Houston potentially lost more than just home court advantage Sunday night, as starting point guard Patrick Beverley was diagnosed with a right knee sprain after colliding into an Aldridge screen in overtime. Beverley partially tore the meniscus in that right knee almost a month ago, though the injury did not require surgery. He is scheduled to have an MRI on Monday and his status for the rest of the series is not yet known.
What is known is that the Trail Blazers now lead the series 1-0. But Portland also knows that winning one game, even a road game, does not win a playoff series.
“We wanted to win at least one here, so we’ve done that,” said Stotts. “We’re not by any means satisfied. We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us. We knew we had to win at least one here and we put ourselves in a position to win. We were able to eek it out. This one, after tonight, is behind us. We’ve got to move on.”
And we’re back. After the Trail Blazers defeated a shorthanded Clippers team 109-98 in Game Five at Staples Center to take a 3-2 lead in the first round series, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studios once again to deliver another playoff edition of the Rip City Report podcast. Please consider listening…
On this episode, Joe and I discuss the Trail Blazers being on the verge of winning just their second playoff series in the last 16 years, what we’re expecting to see during Game Six Friday in Portland, make our picks for the Trail Blazers’ MVP and most surprising during the first five games, how the injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin change the narrative surrounding the series and answer some of your Twitter-submitted questions regarding Chris Kaman’s birthday, non-Moda Center places to watch Game Six, player playoff bonuses and give a few binge watching suggestions, not that you’d ever need to watch TV again with all these fine podcasts we’re providing for you.
After struggling in the first few games of their first round playoff series, the play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Games Three, Four and Five has been one of the main reasons the Trail Blazers hold a 3-2 advantage versus the Clippers. Mason Plumlee has arguably been Portland’s most valuable player, and both Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have delivered game-changing performances at times during the series, but the attention Lillard and McCollum draw from the Clippers’ defense has allowed for their teammates to have a chance to shine in the postseason. And despite L.A.’s defensive gameplan focusing almost exclusively on stopping Portland’s starting backcourt, Lillard and McCollum are combining to average just over 40 points a game during the 2016 playoffs.
Given that, and the fact that they even made the playoffs, let alone are a game away from winning Portland’s second playoff series in the last 15 years, TNT analyst Charles Barkley declared on last night’s edition of “Inside The NBA” that Portland’s backcourt is second only to Golden State’s, the team the Trail Blazers would face should they advance to the next round.
Damian Lillard was having one of his worst shooting nights of the season through the first three 36 minutes of Portland’s 108-98 victory versus the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of their first round playoff series Wednesday night at Staples Center. Though he no longer had to deal with being defended by guard Chris Paul, who is out of the series after breaking a bone in his right hand during Game Four, the Clippers continued their series-long tactic of throwing constant double teams and traps at Lillard, pestering the 6-3 point guard to go just 1-of-10 from the field through the first three quarters.
“It wasn’t even so much missing the shots that was bothering me, it was just I couldn’t get any attempts because they were so aggressive,” said Lillard. “They played a smaller lineup more often than they did the first couple games, but everything that I did, they were just as aggressive. It was obvious that they wanted me to get rid of the ball just like it was in the first four games.”
And for most of the night, the strategy worked. Despite being being without Paul and Blake Griffin, who is also out for the series with a left quad injury, the Clippers took a five-point lead into the intermission. Even when CJ McCollum got his shot going in the third quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, Los Angeles was still able to go into the fourth quarter tied at 71-71.
But even though Lillard was struggling, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts decided to leave his point guard in the game to start the fourth quarter. Stotts said after the game that he changed up that rotation in order to get McCollum some extra rest, though it ultimately had another benefit.
“I usually play the third and then I sit the first couple minutes of the fourth,” said Lillard. “But I hadn’t gotten it going, and Coach Stotts knew that it was a game that we needed to win. It was a huge game for us. I think he left me out there just so I could get it going.”
Which he did. Lillard made his first attempt of the fourth quarter, a 26-foot pullup three-pointer, after just 15 seconds had elapsed in the fourth. Less than two minutes later, he made another pullup three. He stripped Clippers guard Pablo Prigioni on the ensuing possession and then converted the turnover into a fastbreak dunk, which gave Lillard eight points roughly two minutes.
“I’ve always been able to put the first three quarters behind me and come up big when my team has needed it,” said Lillard. “All my teammates throughout the game, they just kept saying, keep shooting, stay with it, stay aggressive, keep your mind right. I would have been doing that all along, but it felt good to have that encouragement and that support, especially with them trapping so high out. I had to trust the right play, hitting the guy in the middle and allowing him to make the next play to the weak side. I just had to be patient.”
But Lillard wasn’t done just yet. He left the game with just over nine minutes to play in order to get the rest that he’d usually get at the start of the quarter before returning at the 6:25 mark to presumably play the remainder of regulation.
And from there, it was Lillard Time.
He’s go on to make a 16-foot jumper and two three-pointers over the course of a two-minute span that saw the Trail Blazers extend their lead from 10 to 17 while effectively putting the game out of reach with 3:38 to play. By time Lillard subbed out with just under a minute to play, he had put up 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from three in eight and a half fourth-quarter minutes, helping Portland take a 3-2 series lead with what could be a deciding Game Six scheduled for Friday at the Moda Center.
Some players might have chosen, either subconsciously or otherwise, to defer exclusively to his teammates or find reasons not to shoot after struggling through the first three quarters like Lillard did. But that’s not how he got to where he’s at, and it certainly wouldn’t get the Trail Blazers to where they want to go. Regardless of how the game starts, Lillard is always out to finish thanks to a firm belief that the next shot, and the one after that, and the one after that, is going to find the bottom of the net.
“Regardless of how I play in the first three quarters, always in my mind I tell myself, ‘You going to come up big,’” said Lillard. “Even if it comes down to one possession, if I’ve got one point and there’s one possession left in the game, I always tell myself, ‘You’re going to come up big.’ So I was counting on that. That was it. It’s just the mindset, confidence.”