Rockets Strike Back
Story by: Jason Friedman
PORTLAND - In desperate need of a hero, the Rockets found one in the most unlikely of places. Rookie Troy Daniels, who spent the vast majority of the season breaking 3-point shooting records in the D-league, delivered the biggest shot of the Rockets' season, hitting a triple in overtime to help lift Houston to a heart-stopping 121-116 victory in Game 3 of its first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Facing an 0-2 hole heading to Portland, the Rockets began the game with a new wrinkle, unveiling the return of its supersized starting lineup featuring Omer Asik on the front line alongside Dwight Howard. The move was not entirely unexpected, especially when examining the fact that Portland’s starting five came into the contest having outscored Houston by 56 points during the 110 minutes it had shared the floor against the Rockets this season.
The early returns couldn't have been much better from a Rockets’ perspective. Houston’s size impacted the Blazers’ finishing ability around the basket while Patrick Beverley set the tone at the other end of the floor, opening the game with a pair of triples to help his club race out to a 9-0 lead. Also helpful: LaMarcus Aldridge returning to his more human form, as Portland’s All-Star power forward misfired early and often, even – gasp! – airballing one particularly errant attempt. Given that Aldridge came into the game averaging 44.5 points per contest this series, it was nothing short of stunning to see him hit halftime with a mere four points (on 2-of-8 shooting) and four boards.
As the first quarter wore on, Houston received even better news when the 3s continued to fall (the Rockets were 5-of-9 from distance in the quarter) and James Harden emphatically announced his return to prominence. Harden poured in 11 points in the period, punctuating the proceedings with a deep trey that put Houston on top 35-24. Still, it was Beverley who loomed largest of all in the early going as his scoring (11 first quarter points as well) and offensive rebounding allowed the Rockets to not only survive but thrive amid the rabid, raucous Moda Center maniacs.
But just as was the case during Wednesday night’s Game 2, Houston’s hot start was undone by a Blazers blitz in the second quarter. Portland began the period with an 18-3 run that turned its home arena into a boiling cauldron of mojo and momentum. Damian Lillard led the charge, lighting up the scoreboard with a flurry of long-range connections. And as it’s been throughout the series, the Blazers’ prowess on the offensive glass continued to confound Houston as Portland corralled 10 of its 23 halftime misses. Then again, Houston was treating the Blazers just as inhospitably in that regard as well, racking up a whopping 15 second chance points by the break.
The Rockets eventually stemmed the tide thanks to the perpetually effective Harden-Howard pinch post pick-and-roll that resulted in the usual steady stream of alley-oop dunks. And by halftime the two clubs had assumed their now commonplace close proximity to each other on the scoreboard. The Blazers led by the slimmest of margins, 55-54, meaning that through three games between these two clubs, the first half had resulted in a cumulative score of 156-all.
When play resumed, the Rockets once more received an unwanted glimpse of Aldridge’s ability to drain one ridiculously high degree of difficulty shot after another. After lying dormant during the first half, Mount Aldridge erupted again in the third period, scoring 10 points on an assortment of outlandish jumpers, most of which occurred with the outstretched arms of Asik squarely in his face. Fortunately for Houston, it was able to weather the resulting flames and hot lava thanks to some stellar big shot making of its own. The triples continued to rain in from all angles for the Rockets, and its big men (and Beverley) kept creating extra possessions due to their relentless offensive rebounding. That combo allowed Houston to reclain the lead and take an 81-78 edge to the final frame.
As for the contest’s last 12 minutes – which naturally morphed into 17 when the game inevitably continued on into overtime – all that can be said is that Houston fans ought to be seeking out quality cardiologists sooner rather than later given the latest heart attack-inducing finish they were forced to endure. The Rockets began the fourth quarter enterprisingly enough, racing out to an 11-point lead due to the defense of Asik and scoring chops of Harden. Daniels contributed his second triple of the contest. Jeremy Lin chipped in four points. And all the while Houston’s super small lineup kept Robin Lopez off the floor, erasing the presence of Portland’s best offensive rebounder and rim protector.
And still the Blazers came. Lillard was relentless, hitting circus shots and imposing his will. Mo Williams knocked down a trey while getting fouled, earning a four-point play. And Nic Batum ultimately sank a last-minute 3 that tied the game and forced the extra frame.
The Blazers began overtime with a quick burst to seize the lead. Houston eventually knotted things up once more. And then: the loose ball that ruled them all. A helter skelter Houston possession resulted in a scramble for possession. Jeremy Lin somehow emerged with the ball. And with 11.6 seconds left and his club's season squarely on the line, Lin found a wide open Daniels standing in his favorite spot (read: anywhere behind the 3-point arc). The rookie's shot rattled in. Stunned silence settled over the crowd. And the Rockets finally had a lead that would last.
When Batum misfired and Beverley tapped the ensuing rebound to Harden on Portland's last gasp possession, Houston finally had its first win of the 2014 postseason, hanging on for a heart-stopping 121-116 victory.
Game 4 will take place Sunday night. Bring the defibrillators. This series is only just getting started.
HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE
On the effort of the team tonight:
"We played hard. We're not a fine tuned machine right now but we went out and played hard."
On the decision to play Troy Daniels tonight:
"We needed somebody to make a couple of threes, three threes to be exact. He can shoot the ball and I think, prior to tonight, we were shooting 21% from the 3-point line. Troy can knock it down and he didn't have much time with us, he was in the D-league most of the time and I honestly, to be truthful, I told him, "Young fella go out there and fight your butt off. I feel bad that you weren't with us longer to get more comfortable, but you have to get as comfortable as you can possibly get right now." And he did.
One thing I did see in Troy is that he's a tough kid. He's going to get his nose dirty and we needed to get some nose dirty players."
On tonight's performance after two losses at home:
"Yeah, I mean 4-point plays help and, again, you get big leads and you credit them, they battled back. We have to keep doing what we do. I thought we had more attack in the game, we opened up some more three's, we just have to keep getting to the hole. They're a tough team, they're going to bounce back on Sunday, but we are too. We haven't done anything yet. We've won one game, which feels a whole lot better than losing games, but we as a team just have to keep on fighting and I really thought they took the fight to us in the first two games."
On the team's fight tonight:
"Well, it's a process and we're still getting better. We're still working hard and we're still going to try and keep getting better and better chemistry, but this is the most exciting part of the year. Our goal all year long was to get home court advantage and obviously losing those two at home wasn't ideal, but I'm happy with the way we fought tonight. We didn't hang our heads and we got a big win."
On Troy Daniels' big shot and his performance tonight:
"It's big time. A couple weeks ago he was in the D league, and now he saved our season. It was a big time shot, he was ready to play. As soon as he came in and started practice, he was ready. He's always ready and always working hard, so this shot was just helping his mojo."
On any doubtful thoughts coming into tonight's game:
"No. We had confidence. We shouldn't have been down 0-2 in the series, but we knew it was going to be a hostile environment. When we came in, we relaxed, they made a couple runs, but we had our composure and made the winning plays at the end."
On his thoughts after tonight's game looking forward to Sunday:
"The pressure is on them. Sunday is going to be a great game and we have to do a great job of being ready, being focused. We have to quiet runs to a minimum and just be out there for four quarters. The hustle plays, the loose balls, we have to get all of those."
On his sixth game in the league tonight and making a game winning shot:
"I was ready. 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 his emotions after he hit the shot:
"I looked over at [James Harden] and I saw he was hyped, so I looked back at him and said, "Let's go."
On the head coach putting in a rookie to make that shot:
"It means a lot. As a rookie, you never know when you're going to play. When he called my name, I was ready to play. That just shows how much confidence he has in me."
PORTLAND HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS
“It was a hard fought game. 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.”
On execution offensively in last few possessions:
“LA’s shot, Beverly was denying Damian the ball and to be honest, it was an open, top of the key jump shot that he can make. So it wasn’t necessarily the play that we had designed but it wasn’t necessarily a bad shot. Then Nic’s three at the end, to get a clean look like that, he was 4 for 8 going into that, so I thought that was good execution. Mo set a good screen, Nic made a good read and had a good look.”
On evenly matched teams:
“I think we all knew that we’re very evenly matched. We’re very similar in styles. I think these are the games we’ve got to expect. Extra possessions are going to matter in these games. Even though it’s a relatively high scoring game, the extra possessions matter. They did a good job on the offensive rebounds and got second chance points. We did a good job limiting their easy baskets in transition, but this is going to be a hard fought series. They came out and kind of took it to us early, but after that it was a game that just went back and forth.”
On Rockets defending Aldridge:
“Their post defense was good, but he got open looks on pick and rolls. It was one of those things when they have the big guys, then we have to pull them away from the basket. I thought LA got good looks on pick and rolls, but they have a lot of length on their post defense.”
“We had some good looks down the stretch. Lin, Harden and Daniels made their shots and we didn’t. The possession where Mo had the ball, we could have been running the other way in it, but instead Daniels hits a three. A bounce of the ball here or there makes a difference.”
“I thought they played a great game. Both teams knew what was at stake if we were able to win this game. They came out and competed and played really well. I thought our team did a great job of making it a game. We played well ourselves. It came down to one play – they made one more play than we did.”
Was Daniels on scouting report?
“We knew that he was a shooter. We didn’t know that Chandler Parsons was going to be in foul trouble and he would be out there as much as he was. Once they went small, we went small too. That’s really when we got back into the game. He hit, I think, two threes, but he raised up on that last one like he had been there before. You live with him shooting that shot over James Harden.”
“It was a huge game for us, just like it was for them. But like I said they made one more play than we did. 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.”
On Houston starting Asik instead of Jones:
“I wasn’t surprised. We didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t have an answer for LA in the first two games. Once I saw him and Dwight out there at the same time, I figured they were trying to make it harder for him. When a guy gets 40-plus two games in a row, you’ve got to change something and that just happened to be the adjustment they made.”
On how Houston defended you:
“They were more aggressive. 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.”
On being taken out offensively but Batum/Lillard stepping up:
“We were still in the game. We had a chance to win. A tough play down the stretch and they hit a big three. We didn’t make plays down the stretch. We didn’t make shots down the stretch. Guys played great, guys stepped up and made plays for us.”
On execution late in the game offensively:”
“We executed, we just didn’t make any shots. 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 plays because then our play breaks down. I thought we had good looks going down the stretch, we just didn’t make shots.”
Harden said pressure is on you, do you feel that way?
“We’re still in control. The pressure is still on them. They lost two at home so they’re trying to come here and they have to take two. They came out and played as they should, they played like they were desperate, like they needed a win, like they didn’t want their season to end. We probably didn’t set the tone as well as we should have to start the game but I know we will do better next game.”