PORTLAND — When it comes to this series, having home court advantage just ain’t what it used to be.
After winning the first two games of the Western Conference four/five series in Houston, the Trail Blazers fell to the Rockets 121-116 in overtime in front of a sellout crowd at the Moda Center in their first home playoff game since 2011. Through three games, neither team has yet to win on their home floor.
“It was a hard fought game,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “A little bit different than the previous two, but a game that could have gone either way. Ultimately, they made some shots at the end and we didn’t shoot the ball necessarily well in the overtime. But none of them are going to be easy. It’s part of the playoffs.”
Game 5, which is now necessary in the best-of-seven series, will be played April 30 in Houston.
For a moment early in the overtime, it looked as though the Trail Blazers might pull out the win and give themselves an opportunity to sweep the series after taking a 116-112 lead at the 3:08 mark in overtime. But despite numerous quality looks, the Trail Blazers would not score again.
“We executed, we just didn’t make any shots,” said LaMarcus Aldridge. “I had one or two shots I missed. We did get denied on some plays, which we have to work on not getting denied on certain played because then our play breaks down. I thought we had looks down the stretch, we just didn’t make shots.”
But sometimes basketball isn’t just about which team makes shots. Sometimes, it’s more about the fortuitous bounces that lead to those shots. And on Friday night, that bounce went in Houston’s direction.
Houston guard James Harden was being blanketed by Nicolas Batum with less than 17 seconds to play in overtime and the score tired 116-116. Harden tried to find space curling around a Dwight Howard screen, but Batum was able to stay close, funneling Harden into a waiting Dorell Wright, who pocked the ball away from Harden.
Trail Blazers guard Mo Williams looked to have a chance to possess the loose ball, but he lost his balance, possibility due to Harden cutting his legs out from under him, and the ball in the ensuing pandemonium.
Rockets guard Jeremy Lin corralled the loose ball with under five seconds left on the shot clock and spotted little-used guard Troy Daniels behind the three-point line. Daniels, who already had two made three-pointers on the night, caught Lin’s pass in rhythm and calmly hit the shot to put Houston up 119-116.
“I was ready,” said Daniels, who spent time with Houston’s D-League team this season and had not played in the first two games of the series. “My teammates and coaches said just be ready to shoot that shot and that’s what I do. That’s my job, so it was a great shot and a great game.”
On the ensuing possession, Batum would get a great look at what would have been a game-tying three-pointer, but the shot was long and the the Rockets corralled the rebound, effectively ending the game.”Nic’s three at the end, to get a clean look like that, he was 4 of 8 going into that, so I thought that was good execution,” said Stotts. “Mo set a good screen, Nic made a good read and had a good look.”
After the game, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who has his best shooting performance from the field thus far in the series, said Batum’s three was the right play, even if he would have liked an opportunity to live up to his reputation as one of the most clutch shooters in the NBA.
“Nico got a good look and he’s made that shot before plenty of times,” said Lillard. “Of course I would have liked to shoot the shot but when you’re on a team with guys who can also do the same thing, you live with the first open look, and Nico got the first open look, which was a great shot. If it happened all over again and he can get that look, I would say do the same thing.”
The Blazers were led by Lillard, who finished with 30 points, six assists and six rebounds in 47 minutes. Lillard was called upon to carry more of the offensive load Friday night with the Rockets throwing all of their efforts at slowing down Aldridge, who had scored 89 points combined in the first two games of the series.
“They were more aggressive,” said Aldridge, who finished with 23 points on 8 of 22 shooting, 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 43 minutes. “They forced me baseline and brought the big baseline. That’s why the first half I was making a read on it and I was more aggressive in the second half when I kind of figured it out a little bit. Pick and roll, they rotated big to big, so they made it a point to take me out and not let me get up a lot of shots tonight and not find a good rhythm.”
After having no answer for Aldridge in the first two games, Rockets head coach Kevin McHale decided to start Omer Asik at power forward in place of Portland-native Terrence Jones, who played just 13 minutes Friday night.
“They didn’t have an answer for LA in the first two games,” said Lillard. “Once I saw (Asik) and Dwight (Howard) out there at the same time, I figured they were trying to make it harder for him. When a guy gets 40-plus points two games in a row, you’ve got to change something and that just happened to be the adjustment they made.”
With the defense focusing on Aldridge, Batum was freed up, particularly on drive to the lane, and responded with a 26-point, nine-rebound, five-assist, three-steal night. He also had the job of guarding Rockets James Harden, who had his best game of the series with 37 points on 13 of 35 shooting, nice rebounds and six assists in nearly 50 minutes.
“We made everything tough,” said Lillard of Portland’s defense on Harden. “He got 37 points on 35 shots, so we’ll live with that.”
Howard finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 45 minutes. Patrick Beverley scored 16 points while handing out nine assists and Chandler Parsons finished with 15 points before fouling out.
Next up, the Trail Blazers host Game 4 at the Moda Center on Sunday. Portland will try to be the first home team to win at home while also taking a 3-1 lead before heading back to Houston for Game 5.
“They made one more play than we did,” said Lillard. “It would be a problem if we lost this game because of effort or we weren’t focused on taking care of business, but we were. It’s the playoffs and nobody said we were going to come out and sweep them. We’re lucky that we were able to win two games in Houston and be in the position right now that we’re in right now. It’s one game and we’ve got to move on from it.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 PM.
When the Western Conference first round series between the Trail Blazers and Clippers started, many assumed it would be a quick affair, with the Clippers eventually moving on to face the Golden State Warriors in the second round. And after Warriors point guard Stephen Curry suffered a knee injury that will keep the reigning MVP sidelined for the start of the second round, much of the conversation revolved around how that would improve the Clippers’ chances of beating the defending champs in the Western Conference semifinals. The fact that the Clippers still had to beat the Trail Blazers two more times didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
A few days later, that narrative has flipped. Leading the series 3-2 with a chance to clinch in Game Six tonight at the Moda Center (tipoff scheduled for 7:30 pm on KGW, ESPN and 620 AM), the Trail Blazers are now Golden State’s presumptive opponent, as injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have all but ended the Clippers’ playoff run.
But just as the Clippers still had to win four games to advance, so too do the Trail Blazers, which is a good reminder that there are no such thing as inevitability when it comes to sports. “That’s why the play the game,” might be trite, but it’s still as true as it ever was, something the Trail Blazers know as well as any team still alive in the postseason.
“We just go out there and play, we don’t really pay attention to what’s being said,” said CJ McCollum. “You can’t read into that too much. First we were supposed to get swept, first we were just happy to win a game, so you just go play. You don’t really worry about the other stuff, you just control what you can control, keep your mindset the same, understand that nothing is inevitable. You’ve got to go out there and play.”
Though the Trail Blazers were able to beat the Clippers 108-98 at Staples Center in Game Five sans Paul and Blake, a team led by JJ Redick, DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers still managed to take a five-point lead into the half and had the game tied at 71-71 going into the fourth quarter, so it’s not as if any team, including Portland, can just roll the ball out in a playoff game and expect to emerge with the victory. After all, if that were the case, the Clippers would already be in Oakland preparing for the Western Conference semifinals.
“We understand that they’re a good team,” said McCollum “Regardless of what’s happened, regardless of what injuries they’ve gone through, they’re still a good team and we’ve still got to go play the game.”
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.