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Blazers Burn Rockets In OT

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' Game 122-120 OT loss to the Portland Trail Blazers

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

The Rockets’ postseason run was kicked off Sunday night with a spectacular new intro video that came complete with a dazzling pyrotechnics show that produced thrills and chills galore. Toyota Center was rocking prior to the opening tip. Then the game began and the scoring extravaganza most expected promptly turned into a dud. Let’s put it this way: if chicks digged bricked open 3s and missed bunnies around the rim, then nearly everyone who took part in the game’s early stages would have had a harem awaiting them the second they left the floor – such was the extent of the numerous blown opportunities that both team struggled to overcome in the opening period.

The Rockets, especially, were ragged out of the gate, with both Dwight Howard and James Harden combining to hit just two of their 11 attempts from the field in the first quarter. And while Portland missed its fair share of layups and wide-open looks from the perimeter as well, the Blazers at least were able to make amends by corralling eight of their 17 misfires, allowing them to rack up eight second chance points while picking on Houston’s season-long bugaboo of failing to effectively take care of the defensive glass. Predictably, LaMarcus Aldridge stood front and center as Portland seized an early lead, piling up 12 points, eight boards and two blocked shots in the opening period.

- At the 4:47 mark of the first quarter, Houston went with a supersized lineup that had been hinted at in the days leading up to the game. Omer Asik joined Dwight Howard in the frontcourt to give the Rockets a twin towers look, but it was a short-lived experiment due to the fact Asik picked up three fouls in just three minutes. 

- How do the playoffs differ from the regular season? The preparation and scouting that goes into these matchups is at a completely different level. A perfect example of this phenomenon took place in the opening period when the Rockets came out of a timeout and ran one of their pet plays – the elbow pick-and-roll involving Harden and Howard that seemingly ends in a Howard alley-oop dunk 90 percent of the time. The Blazers were all over it, however, deflecting Harden’s pass and causing a turnover. Keep in mind, this is just Game 1; as this series continues and evolves, it’s only going to get even harder to fool the opposition.

- For all of their myriad issues to start the game, Houston still hung around thanks in large part to the tremendous first half efforts put in by Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin. Parsons was one of the few Rockets players capable of connecting from long distance in the early going, and his 17 first half points led all scorers by the break. Parsons was flying all over the court, lending credence to the notion that, of all of Houston’s players who had a chance to take it easy and take some time off over the course of the season’s final week, he was the one who needed it – and benefitted from it – the most.

All Jones did, meanwhile, was devour the boards, swat shots and produce at a rate that wholly flew in the face of the fact that Houston was outscored by 45 points during his 49 minutes of floor time against the Blazers during the regular season. Jones’ energy and impact was off the charts, and he played an instrumental role in the Rockets’ 24-6 run that allowed Houston to turn the game on its ear and open up a double-digit lead. Lin, too, was terrific, hustling to loose balls, hitting a pair of timely shots, and setting up teammates for scores, as he did when he somehow came up with the rock after a wild scramble along the baseline before zipping a picture perfect pass to a cutting Jones for a jam that whipped the Toyota Center faithful in a full-blown frenzy.

The Rockets’ run exposed Portland’s undeniable depth issues, continuing upon the regular season trend that saw Houston beat up on the Blazers bench in the second quarter, compiling an offensive rating of 102.8 and a stifling defensive mark of 88.1 during that period.

But then Portland’s starters returned, so too did its mojo. The Blazers summarily responded by ripping off a 15-2 of their own to momentarily re-take the lead. More ominous still for Houston was the fact that during that stretch Dwight Howard joined Asik on the bench with his third foul of the game.

But after missing the first five 3s he attempted, Harden finally got one to go just before halftime, allowing Houston to cling to a slim 49-48 edge at the break. All told, the first half featured a ton of weird trends that weren’t likely to continue – none more so than the fact that the Rockets, the No. 1 team in the league in free throw attempts per game all season long, had attempted a grand total of zero freebies through the first two quarters of play while Portland had earned 17 trips to the charity stripe. Houston, by the way, averaged 31.8 free throws per contest against Portland this season – a mark that was actually a smidge above its season average of 31.1 attempts per game.

- With that having been said, it should come as no surprise that the third period featured a Rockets team that relentlessly attacked the basket. And while the club’s shooting was still spotty at times, Houston went to the line 14 times in the period while Portland could only coax three free throws from an officiating crew that came under fire all night long (and the heat only increased when Beverley got T’d up, Howard picked up his fourth foul, and Asik later claimed his fifth during a tumultuous third quarter).

But while the crowd worked itself into a rather incendiary lather, Houston’s players wisely used that energy in a positive way. Beverley, never one to lower his wattage, continued to play at a fever pitch, hounding and harassing Portland’s perimeter playmakers at one end while hauling in an assortment of offensive rebounds at the other (helpful reminder: Beverley led all NBA point guards in offensive rebound rate this season). You know that NBA commercial where the players sprout six extra arms and move like they’re inhabiting The Matrix? That’s a close approximation to what Beverley looked like during tonight’s second half.

Then there was Harden, inevitably bouncing back from his rocky first half, coolly dropping 13 points on Portland in the third period. His scoring helped Houston add to its lead, and when the Rockets began the final frame with a 7-0 run, it was clear that the Blazers were on the ropes and in danger of falling too far behind to have any reasonable hope of rallying regardless of Aldridge’s prolific production. It certainly did not help Portland’s cause that Howard, too, had emphatically emerged from his less than stellar opening stanza, and was regularly and routinely abusing the Blazers’ decision to defend him one-on-one with Robin Lopez. By the time Portland played the Hack-a-Howard card at the 4:30 mark with Houston up double-digits, the deal appeared to be sealed.

Or not. After hitting his first two free throws, Howard proceeded to miss four straight, prompting head coach Kevin McHale to sit him for a spell. Then Damian Lillard and Aldridge went nuts, rolling off 11 points in the span of one minute and 14 seconds. Suddenly, startlingly, and stunningly, the game was tied at 98 with 2:46 remaining. Just an absolutely remarkable turn of events.

So with the game suddenly up for grabs once again, it should come as absolutely no surprise that Houston called upon the late-game heroics of Harden once more. Just as he’d done all season long, the Rockets’ All-Star two-guard hit a pair of huge buckets and two massive free throws in the final few minutes to put his team in position to win. But each time he did so, Portland had an answer. First, it was Damian Lillard who went Top Gun (“Hit the brakes and he’ll fly right by”) on Terrence Jones in order to create enough air space for him to drain a game-tying triple. Then after Harden had put his club in front once more, Aldridge again made life miserable for Houston, tipping in the tying bucket with less than three seconds left. After Harden’s buzzer-beater flew long, overtime was in the offing after Houston had allowed the Blazers to score 19 points during the final four minutes of regulation.

And, naturally, there was nothing even remotely approaching normalcy in overtime. Houston began the extra period by racing out to a 6-point lead thanks to and-1 buckets by both Howard and Lin, only for Portland to tie the game on a miraculous triple for Aldridge and a more ordinary 3 courtesy of Nic Batum. And since there wasn’t nearly enough drama down the stretch, the Blazers saw Lopez and Aldridge foul out, leaving them perilously lacking in anything resembling rim protection and quality rebounding. Sure enough, Houston eagerly took advantage of both, driving to the hoop without fear of reprisal and gobbling up offensive boards as if they were Cadbury cream eggs.

And still Portland kept coming. Lillard simply refused to let his team succumb to the circumstances. The Blazers’ precocious young point guard singlehandedly kept the Blazers in the game by relentlessly attacking the rim and earning his way to the free throw line. His final two attempts from the charity stripe with 17 seconds left put Portland in front by one. Then Joel Freeland knocked down 1-of-2 freebies seconds later to set the stage for Houston’s last gasp to either emerge victorious or send the game to yet another extra frame.

This time, however, Houston was out of magic. Harden got the ball as expected, but utimately found himself stuck without a dribble or clear passing lane while being hounded by Batum. The seconds rapidly rolled off the clock. He had no choice but to shoot. His turnaround to beat the buzzer bounced off the rim. And with that, the Blazers laid claim to an unbelievable Game 1 by a final score of 122-120.

Game 2 will take place at Toyota Center Wednesday night. The Rockets will hope to bounce back, and to do so they’ll have to figure out a way to slow Aldridge’s season-long domination of them. With tonight’s 46 and 18 performance, he joined Hakeem Olajuwon and Dwight Howard as the only players since 1986 to put up those numbers in a playoff game.

And then there is the matter of Patrick Beverley. He appeared to reaggravate his right knee injury during the overtime session. He'll receive an MRI Monday morning. Suffice to say, the Rockets' collective fingers will be crossed once more while hoping for a result that allows him to return sooner rather than later. 

QUOTES

HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE

(On flow of game when Portland started the Hack-a-Howard): “That changed (the game) it somewhat. We missed some free throws. They came just pushing it down and we didn't defend, they just kind of ran it down, they got a four point play off of kind of funny play. Then we were kind of back on our heels, they pushed it up on us. They made a couple of tough shots. We got a lot of opportunities for us to control that game, we just didn't do it.”

(On inconsistencies on defense) “We put ourselves in position a couple of times to try to be in a situation where we are going to extend the lead. They started fouling Dwight (Howard) and then they started pushing it down and taking quick shots and attacking the basket. They got us in foul trouble, we got back on our heels and we didn't defend or push on the missed free throw very well.”

(On the last play) “We tried something and they kind of blew it up. And then we got it into TJ (Terrence Jones) and TJ got it back to James (Harden). They had no bigs in there except for (Joel) Freeland and we were trying to get to the hole on it. We didn't get that. James picked the ball up and got a shot late. He's made those shots before, but it wasn't a smooth running play. We didn't attack the rim and get downhill like we wanted to.”

(On stopping LaMarcus Aldridge) “We've got to do a better job, we're trying not to come down...he had 7 offensive rebounds. He had points on offensive rebounds, he got to the line 13 times and he made 17 shots and a lot of them were to the middle. We were trying to take away a couple of things and we didn't do a very good job on him at all. He's been a handful for us all year long and we're going to have to come up with a couple of new ways to keep the ball out of his hands, we just didn't have any answers for him.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On the difference in the game): “We just didn't get stops. When you're in the playoffs and you're up eleven at home with five or six minutes to go, you just got to close out games. We didn't make shots. We didn't get stops. They hit two big three's and they got an and-1 three and what not. It's a tough loss, it's tough way to lose, but we'll bounce back. We see some things we can do against them.”

(On how the Trail Blazers kept fighting back): “They are a good team. They are a really good team. They have a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket. Like I said, we let up a couple of times. We knew the game wasn't going to be easy. We let up a couple of times, gave them a couple of easy baskets, three pointers. Lamarcus (Aldridge) made a tough three pointer in the corner, but I've got to play better. I didn't shoot the ball well. (I'm) just kind of rusty. I've got to shake it off, but it will be better in game 2.

“At home, up 11 with five or six minutes to go, we’ve got to find a way to close that game out.

“I’ve got to play better. I didn’t shoot the ball well. Definitely put that on my shoulders.”

TERRENCE JONES

(On how tough the loss is): “It was very tough. We were fighting so hard the whole game. Coming up short is always difficult.”

(On how hard it is to guard LaMarcus Aldridge): “It's a very hard task. He gets the ball a lot of possessions. He's very aggressive. He had it going tonight, so it was difficult. (He) is versatile in scoring. Being able to make so many short range jumpers and then being able to post up. He made threes today and got offensive rebounds. All different types of ways of scoring.

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On what went wrong in the second half) “It was a combination of everything. We had multiple leads that we gave up and let them be the aggressive team and when we get a lead like that we can’t allow them to come back and they’ve got guys that can hit ridiculous shots, which they did tonight. (LaMarcus) Aldridge, (Damian) Lillard, those guys are going to hit tough shots. You have to live with that some nights, but when we have a lead like that; we have to expand on it. We can’t let them keep coming back in the game.”

(On the play of LaMarcus Aldridge) “He’s really a dynamic player. He is a strong, big dude, so you can’t put a smaller guy on him and he hits tough shots. He takes a lot of long two point shots, and he hit a big three tonight. He just makes tough shots. He’s got a high release. You can’t really block his shot. He’s had a great year.”

(On the frustration of the loss) “It stinks. It hurts. At the end of the day, it’s just one game, but it is a game that we let slip away. We had no business losing this game.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the Rockets losing the 4th quarter lead) “Just couldn’t get stops and didn’t get rebounds. Just kind of the little things that are called little things but I guess aren’t that little. Up eleven or whatever it was with five or six minutes to go, we really have to do the little things. All five of us on the floor just didn’t get it done and we let them come back.”

(On the frustration of the loss) “It just feels like they just kind of stole a game from us. I am not down playing anything that they have done or anything, but that’s just how it feels. That’s how I feel right now. Man, we had it, and we should’ve won and now we’re walking away down one game.”

(On Beverley’s injury) “I don’t know what the medical thing is so I can’t really comment on that. But obviously that guy’s like a brother to me and I love him and I’m hoping for the best and I’ll be praying for him. I have no idea what’s going on but we’ll all hear tomorrow. We need that guy very, very, very badly.”

PORTLAND HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS

On the way the Trail Blazers competed): “I was really proud of the way we competed. I thought that we grounded it out at least three times, once in the first half, once in regulation, once in overtime. We stayed together and kept competing. We had guys make big plays. We fought through some adversity and foul trouble. It's good to get a win. This is just game one. We know we still have our work cut out for us.”

(On Damian Lillard's performance): “It was a Damian Lillard performance. Damian rises to the occasion. For all those people who were wanting to know if he was ready for the playoffs, I think he answered 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.”

(On LaMarcus Aldridge's readiness for the playoffs): “I don't know why anybody would question whether he's ready for this. The guy is an All-Star, a multiple All-Star, probably All-Pro. He's been ready for this moment too. We've worked 82 games to get to this point and we expect this from each other.”

(On turning point of the game): “There were a few. When we fell down whatever it was in the first half and we fought back to tie it up, that was a turning point. Obviously when we fouled Dwight and he missed his free throws, that was a turning point. They came out and made the first six points of overtime then we tied it up, that was a turning point. I thought the game had a lot of even flow to it.”

(On winning game one): “We wanted to win at least one here, so we've done that. 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 eak it out. This one, after tonight is behind us. We've got to move on.”

(On deciding to foul Dwight): “First they have to be in the bonus. When Dwight was scoring, they weren't in the bonus. As soon as they were in the bonus, we had to extend the game.”

(On Lamarcus Aldridge's performance): “We rode him (LaMarcus Aldridge). He was very efficient on his post-ups. When they played the small lineups, he (LaMarcus Aldridge) took advantage of the small match ups that he had.”

ROBIN LOPEZ

(On playing against Dwight Howard) “He’s a good player. There are times when I’m going to have to try and guard him one on one and I am up for that challenge.”

(On him fouling out at the end of the game) “I was just having a talk with Chandler (Parsons) and I asked him if that was six fouls and I gave him a tap on his back. This is playoff basketball and the emotions are very high and we want to win games. There’s a lot of passion involved.”

(On the game being physical) “That’s a lot of fun. That’s the way I grew up playing basketball and that’s the style and the way it should be.”

(On fourth quarter when the team was down by 11 points) “We just wanted to make sure that we stuck with it. We’ve come back from bigger deficits this season and we realize that we can come back. We knew we could still win that game. We have a never say die attitude.”

LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE

(On what got into him tonight) “It was just one of those nights. 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 and I was trying to lead tonight. I thought every guy played great tonight. Joe came in and took some big fouls for us and made some big plays. This team is good. For us to win we need everybody.”

(On the team’s play down the stretch) “Every guy on this team comes to me and talks to me and they believe in me and they tell me that I can dominate a game and I can do it so I’m always hearing that my teammates have my back. Those positive affirmations from them are always good for me and I’ve been here and I’ve went through this process and I understand it and I just think that tonight was one of those nights.”

(On his intensity) “I made the playoffs three years in a row and you kind of get comfortable and then I missed it three years in a row so just being back here I am very excited about it and I am looking forward to the challenge. I am playing better than I have in the past. I tried to tell every guy that the playoffs is like another level and another season and tonight I wanted to lead in that way. I think every guy felt I came ready to play.”

NICOLAS BATUM

(On the game) “This was a big win for us. It was a great win for us but it’s just one game and we can’t be satisfied. We were down ten (points) a couple of times and were making mistakes but we still got the win. Everybody played well and showed up at the end. It was a fantastic win for us.”

(On defending James Harden) “That’s what I have to do. I know he’s one of the best top ten players in the league. He’s clutch. We all know he’s going to get his shots so I try and do my best to try and deny him and make it difficult.”

(On the playoffs) “I’m a little bit tired but you have to feel good because it’s the playoffs. You can’t be tired because we have two days to get some rest.”

(On LaMarcus Aldridge’s play) “I’ve been seeing that for six years. We really needed the way that he played for us tonight. His game was huge for us. He was everywhere on the block and Dwight (Howard) is not a bad defender so he did great against one of the best so I’m very proud of him.”

DAMIAN LILLARD

(On his playoff debut) “It was exciting, man. Our team had some adversity and we competed very hard. They (Rockets) played a great game and you can’t take anything away from Houston. It came down to making free throws and making stops and we were able to get one more.”

(On their play) “We were just very aggressive in the first half, both defensively and they (Rockets) didn’t shoot free throws. We knew that going into the second half it wasn’t going to be the same. The referees would see they hadn’t shot any free throws and it changed. They came out in the second half and they got some calls and that’s what we expected but our whole thing is to just keep playing and stay together. They made a run and we made our run and we stuck with them and were able to pull it out.”

(On if he feels like a seasoned player now that he has played in a playoff game) “I can’t consider myself a seasoned playoff vet. There are so many other guys that have played in 200 games. I think I heard Tim Duncan played in 200+ playoff games. That’s my first one and I’m happy that we were able to win it.”