Rip City Heartbreak
Story by: Jason Friedman
Blazers bounce Rockets 123-120 in overtime to win Game 4, take 3-1 series lead
PORTLAND - Dwight Howard dominated both ends of the floor. Troy Daniels delivered yet another big game off the bench. Chandler Parsons snapped out of his shooting slump. And Houston used its best half of basketball to build itself yet another double-digit lead.
But in the end, the coin flip series to end all coin flip series still managed to produce yet another heads-or-tails affair. And for the third time in four games, the Blazers were the beneficiaries of a flip that ultimately favored them in the end.
LaMarcus Aldridge led all scorers with 29 points to offset another outstanding performance from Howard, who was nothing short of magnificent himself while racking up 25 points and 14 rebounds. Yet despite Dwight's best efforts, it was Portland who emerged victorious at the end of this latest agonizing and exhausting contest, prevailing 123-120 in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead.
There were few hints that Houston would suffer such a heartbreaking result in the early going as the club actually started the contest exceptionally well. After three games featuring a pair of teams that struggled to achieve any sort of separation from the other, the Rockets broke free in the first half and enjoyed an opening 24 minutes that saw them largely dominate the Blazers both inside and out. Chandler Parsons led the charge as Houston delivered its highest scoring half of the series, piling up 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting to boost the Rockets to a 61-51 advantage by the break. Parsons shook out of his recent slump by beginning the game with a pair of 3s, and then spent the rest of the half attacking the basket again and again as Houston made a concerted effort to repeatedly race toward the rim, especially once Portland starting center Robin Lopez picked up his second foul of the contest near the midway point of the opening period.
Parsons was hardly alone in elevating Houston to its best basketball of the series. Howard didn’t pile up monster numbers in the first half, but his paint protection stymied Portland throughout and he played a massive part in the Rockets’ ability to absolutely obliterate the Blazers on the offensive glass. Houston hit halftime having snagged nearly 50 percent of its misses, leading to a 14-4 advantage in terms of second chance points.
Houston’s bench delivered the goods as well, with Game 3 hero Troy Daniels picking right up where he left off Friday night, draining all three of his 3-point attempts during the first two periods of play. Terrence Jones was terrific, too, using his energy and athleticism to score near the hoop and create invaluable extra possessions. Jeremy Lin, meanwhile, pitched in with a team-leading three assists. All told, the Rockets shot nearly 55 percent from the field and 7-of-15 from beyond the arc during the first half.
The third period began brightly from a Houston perspective as well, with Parsons swishing his fourth triple of the contest during the early stages of the period while Portland’s players showed their first signs of frustration this series. Just how well were things going for the Rockets? Even Omer Asik felt comfortable doing his best LaMarcus Aldridge impression, jacking up a midrange jumper off the dribble that hit nothing but net. And when the Blazers did make a mini run, it was summarily thwarted by a highlight worthy Harden-Howard pick-and-roll that resulted in a bodacious slam by the Rockets’ big man which simultaneously drew Lopez's fourth foul, forcing him to the bench once more.
For the most part, however, the third quarter featured little in the way of aesthetically pleasing play. Both sides committed the kind of turnovers that practically begged fans to look away. Head scratching calls drew the ire of each team and an increasingly rabid Moda Center crowd. Still, Houston’s lead steadily stayed between 7-to-10 points for much of the period. But Damian Lillard stunningly put an end to that trend when he hit an extraordinarily difficult corner 3 at the buzzer to bring the Blazers within five heading to the final frame.
The chaos, it turns out, was only just beginning. Somewhere along the way in the fourth quarter this beautiful series transformed into something more befitting a college basketball game (an intensely entertaining one, but still) with its endless array of one-on-one battles that featured far too much dribbling and not nearly enough ball and body movement. Oh, some possessions still managed to work out wonderfully well in the end, such as the one trip that saw Houston's offense go haywire for 23 seconds before Harden hit an impossible 3 in Wes Matthews’ face to beat the shot clock. For the most part, however, the results were less than desirable from a Rockets' perspective, and Portland took full advantage, using a 14-3 run to leap in front for the first time since the first quarter.
Then Dwight Howard rescued the Rockets with a defensive sequence worthy of anything he accomplished during his three-year reign as Defensive Player of the Year. With his club’s season seemingly on the line once again, Howard rejected shots, devoured rebounds and stymied one Portland possession after another. At the other end of the floor he wasn’t too shabby, either, knocking down the majority of his free throws and sparking a Rockets’ rally that eventually put them back in front in the final minute.
But since nothing in this series could ever be so simple as a final minute that featured nothing in the way of lead changes, plenty more mayhem was still to come. Twice the Blazers missed shots to tie or take the lead, and each time they recovered the rock, leading to the latest example of chaos reigning supreme as Mo Williams broke free for long enough to sink a triple with 18 seconds left to put Portland back up by one.
On the ensuing possession, Harden had his shot blocked at the rim and the Rockets immediately fouled Dorell Wright, who hit just one of two at the line. Given a reprieve, Harden then made amends the next time down the floor, dropping off a perfect pass to Howard for a dunk to tie things up once more with little more than three seconds left. When Williams' buzzer-beating heave bounced harmlessly off the rim, these two assuredly exhausted teams were headed to overtime for the third time in four games.
In the extra frame, Portland leaped out in front just as they did in Game 3. A Batum triple with 2:35 to go restored the Blazers’ lead to five with 2:35 remaining. Then Damian Lillard raced the floor for a layup to make it a seven-point game. The Rockets stood at the edge of the abyss once again and again they roared back.
Troy Daniels added to his postseason lore with a rainbow 3 from the corner. Harden responded with a similarly sick turnaround jumper from the baseline, cutting the club’s deficit to two. But with 17 seconds left, Harden’s trey to take the lead rimmed out, forcing Houston to foul immediately. Two Lillard freebies later, Portland was back in front by four. Parsons followed up with a misfire from distance but even then the game was far from finished thanks to the fact that Aldridge missed both of his free throws. Daniels, as was only appropriate on this wildest of nights, got fouled on a 3-pointer to bring Houston back within one.
But that’s when the Rockets finally ran out of lives. After a pair of Williams free throws put the Blazers on top 123-120, Matthews stripped Patrick Beverley at midcourt, preventing Houston from firing up one final last gasp attempt to force a second OT. Portland ran off the game’s final seconds, bringing an end to the latest indescribable, agonizing and exhausting affair.
Afterward, the Rockets lamented the little things that stood between themselves and an opportunity to send the series back to Houston tied at two games apiece.
"The playoffs are a grind," said Houston head coach Kevin McHale. "It’s a different game than the regular season. You’ve got to be built for the grind – that’s what it is. Our guys are fairly young and they’ve got to understand that this thing is an absolute grind. You have to just grind out wins and you have to grind out plays and you’ve got to execute. When we have a plan, we have to stick with it."
But even while staring an admittedly difficult deficit in the face, the Rockets made it clear in no uncertain terms that they fully intend to fight back and force a return trip to Portland later this week.
"We feel like just as easily as it's 1-3 we're down, we could be up 3-1," said Parsons, who finished the contest with 26 points and eight rebounds. "A couple plays here and there, and it can all change. We're excited to go back to Houston and play at home and we fully expect to come back here and this is it. It's win or go home and we're not trying to go home."
HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE
On his overall thoughts on tonight's game:
"We didn't execute very well, we held the ball way too often. We just held the ball way too much. We didn't attack enough and we had a ton of opportunities. That wasn't the fourth quarter, it was the third quarter, we had three consecutive breaks where we were up 11 and could have gone 17."
On the amount of boards in the first half in comparison to the second:
"Well, we didn't get them. You have to go get them."
On his attempt to give the ball to Dwight towards the end of the game:
"Yes, we were trying to get the ball into Dwight. Dwight was being aggressive. We didn't have much aggression tonight. Again, you know, we're trying to find some things offensively, especially down the stretch there, that click for us and gave everybody kind of a shot and I just felt, at that time, Dwight was our best bet down in the box."
On the exhaustion of playing overtime in three of the four games:
“It's not exhausting if you're winning, it's exhausting if you're losing. We've lost two of the three, so we had our opportunities, we just have got to play our game. We didn't get some of the loose balls, we didn't get some of the little plays and those plays end up hurting you. at the end of the game, we have the chance to make a three. We don't get the ball to who we're trying to get it to, they end up with a steal."
The playoffs are a grind. It’s a different game than the regular season. You’ve got to be built for the grind – that’s what it is. Our guys are fairly young and they’ve got to understand that this thing is an absolute grind. You have to just grind out wins and you have to grind out plays and you’ve got to execute. When we have a plan, we have to stick with it.
The good news is we get to go back to Houston and do battle again on Wednesday.
On what happened tonight that caused a loss:
"When you get to this point, it's so competitive in this series and in the West, that everything is magnified. All the little plays that we're not doing cost you and we're learning the hard way with all those plays. Loose balls, offensive rebounds, defensive breakdowns, we're not executing and doing what we need to do and at this level, every little thing costs you and we're down 1-3 because of it."
On his offensive performance tonight:
"Just slowed down, stopped getting out in transition, started going more to [Dwight Howard]. He's had a good series, so I just have to continue to stay aggressive and I can't sit back. I have to be a part of the offensive, especially when I have it going like that."
On his and the team's mindset after tonight:
"We feel like just as easily as it's 1-3 we're down, we could be up 3-1. A couple plays here and there, and it can all change. We're excited to go back to Houston and play at home and we fully expect to come back here and this is it. It's win or go home and we're not trying to go home."
On a young team having to do with the little mistakes he discussed:
"Yeah, you can't use that as an excuse, though. We're here and anything that happened during the regular season does not matter at all. Everybody starts from scratch and this is the first time, the first year we've been playing together, but that doesn't matter either. We're a good team with the potential to be great, we're just not reaching our ceiling, we're not reaching our potential because of these little letdowns that we keep having. That's definitely not an excuse, we should be better than this."
On his thoughts about Portland tonight:
“They played good. We respect them and they have so many options. Their starting five is one of the better ones in the entire NBA. They can hurt you inside with [LaMarcus Aldridge], they have shooters that space the floor, Wright has being playing well for them. So, they played well. You can't take anything away from them, but it's just hard to play a team and play against ourselves against the same time. It's impossible to win that way."
It’s playoff basketball, it’s going to be intense. You’ve got to give everything youv’e got in order to win these games.
It’s like we’re giving games away, but we’ve got to stay positive right now. We can’t hang our heads and we can’t quit. We’re not going to allow negativity to seep into our minds.
(is the team playing good enough defense?)
I think we’re playing pretty good defense, we’re just having a couple possessions where on the offensive end we just relax instead of staying on the attack. We’ve just got to be smart.
(giving up the fourth quarter leads just part of the growing pains of a young team?)
It is, but we don’t have time. We have to really value each possession and understand that from day one; we’ve got to value the ball and value every possession.
(you came to Houston to win – how is this sitting with you?)
It’s not over with. Like I said, we have to stay positive. We can’t let negativity get in your mind or your heart.
Like coach said, it's a grind. And we have to do a better job of grinding games out.
We have to get better. We have to be a more true team, a more hardnosed team. This series is not over. I know a lot of people are counting us out but there’s still a lot of games to go.
We have to go back to Houston and take care of business there. That’s our focus right now. We know our crowd is going to be ecstatic. This series is not over.
(what needs to be done to execute better down the stretch?)
Be more mature. Again, we made mistakes down the stretch. It’s a learning process. That’s our mindset right now. We are eager to get this one.
It shouldn’t have been in overtime in the first place. I should have held onto the ball and called timeout.
(what happened on that play exactly?)
I just got the ball underneath and I saw a lot of players and thought they were either going to come trap me or put me in a tough situation so I needed to move along the baseline. I just wanted to try to get out somewhere away. Whoever hit the ball away from behind, I didn’t see them. But that’s on me.
PORTLAND HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS
“It was another terrific game and I think it’s obvious that both teams are pretty evenly matched. I was really proud of the way we played in the second half. I thought we showed a lot of heart and determination to get back into the game. Even having the lead at the end of regulation and then losing the lead in overtime, we made a lot of big plays. Wes Matthews was terrific tonight. LA, Nic was aggressive, Dame, everybody who played made a strong contribution. Thomas Robinson coming off the bench in the second half and giving us a spark. There was a lot of things to be proud of, but we know we’re not there yet. We’ve got to go down to Houston and get one down there.”
On getting Aldridge going in the second half:
“We’re a team and getting anybody going, it’s important that we make plays and it’s important that we’re aggressive. When we’re aggressive, opportunities open up for anybody, whether it’s LA or Dame or Nic or Wes or whoever it is, as long as we’re aggressive, opportunities will come up for us.
Did Matthews will you to this win?
“Wes has a big heart. He was taking criticism for his offense in the first three games. His defense has been as solid every game and I don’t think any of us were concerned about his offense, but he came out determined and made plays on both ends. That’s what Wes does. He’s got a big heart.”
“He’s being aggressive going to the basket. The last two games, the fourth quarter and overtime have been with small lineups, which open up driving opportunities and getting to the rim. When you play a spacing lineup, those opportunities are going to be there. Nic provides us with a lot of things. In fact, I know a lot of people get caught up on whether he shoots or if he takes enough shots. I think he plays the game the right way and looks for the opportunities that make the team better.”
“They’re very evenly matched. Players and teams don’t really change who they are, so both teams are aggressive, both teams are playing to their strengths. I don’t know if anything surprises me right now, but the one thing I did forget to mention is what we did on the boards in the second half and limiting their threes and offensive rebounds, second chance points in the second half I thought was the key to the game. We gave them too many threes in the first half. We gave them too many offensive rebounds in the first half, and we really limited that in the second half and overtime.”
“It was a great game, a great game to be a part of. Both teams competed really hard. It was another overtime game, but our team played a really resilient, tough game. They controlled most of it, but we kept competing, kept fighting and we found a way to get it done again.”
On Matthews willing team tonight:
“That’s Wes. I wasn’t surprised by that. He competes as hard as anybody in this league at both ends of the floor. He’s matched up against one of the tougher offensive players in James Harden. Every possession he’s coming back. It’s tough to play against when you have a guy that’s picking you up full court and bumping you and cutting you off and playing physical. He can move laterally. He brings it consistently and I think that’s the biggest thing and he makes shots. So having Wes on our team is huge. He definitely was one of the main reasons we were able to get it done.”
Do you feed off that energy?
“Definitely. Our whole team, we look to each other. It’s not about one or two people. It’s about our group. We see Wes playing that way, we see Nico shooting the passing lanes, we see LA taking on the challenge to guard Dwight Howard on the block one on one. Dorell Wright coming in at the four and guarding bigger guys and helping rebound and Mo Williams doing the same thing. So I think the fact that a lot of guys was able to come in and go above and beyond and sacrifice their bodies diving on the floor. If it was five minutes, they gave it all in that five minutes. Our strength is in our unity and it showed tonight.”
On going back to Houston:
“It will be tough, just like the first two games that we won down there. Doing it three times is really tough, but it’s not impossible. When you have a team down three games to one, you don’t want to let them believe too much. They’re a good team, a really confident team and I’m sure they believe that if they win one at home, come back win one here and get it to seven, they’ll have a great chance. But in our heads, we want to make sure that we stay focused, take that same mindset that we’ve had these past four games and take that back into Houston and do what I guess is considered to be almost impossible.” [winning three road games in same series]