Agony and Ecstacy
Story by: Jason Friedman
PORTLAND - Somewhere Portland legend Dr. Jack Ramsay is smiling.
In a playoff game – and series – for the ages, Damian Lillard delivered the defining and decisive moment, draining a buzzer-beating 3 to bury the Rockets 99-98, allowing the Blazers to walk off the floor with a 4-2 series win over Houston.
Lillard’s shot ruined a remarkable performance from the Rockets' pair of All-Stars. James Harden enjoyed his best game of the series by far, scoring a game-high 34 points while Dwight Howard tallied 26 – 13 of which came amid a breathtaking and heartbreaking fourth quarter for the Rockets.
"It hurts," said a visibly distraught Howard after the game. "When you put everything you’ve got on the floor and somebody hits you with a dagger like that, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Befitting a series that left little doubt as to how evenly matched these two clubs truly are, very little separated Houston and Portland during a first half that bore witness to an incredible amount of offensive pyrotechnics from both teams’ superstars. After the Blazers whipped their fans into a frenzy with a 7-0 blitz to begin the game, Harden announced his arrival with a breathtaking stretch of his own that included a pair of steals, triples and assists as he had a hand in 18 of Houston’s first 20 points of the contest. Harden was seemingly everywhere, easily producing his best efforts of the series on both ends of the court. Following his lead, the Rockets rapidly built a double-digit lead – an advantage they attained in five of the six games this series.
But Houston could hardly hold the Blazers down for long. Behind their own star power featuring LaMarcus Aldridge and the unflappable Lillard, Portland closed the quarter with a flurry including a buzzer-beating trey from its potent point guard, allowing the Blazers to get back within a single point by the time the quarter concluded.
The second period was no less dramatic and featured no shortage of significant subplots. The primary storyline: foul trouble for Houston and lots of it. With Aldridge returning to the superhuman form he flashed in Games 1 and 2, raining in one ridiculous jumper after another, Asik picked up his third foul well before the break and then Howard soon joined him in that category with 3:25 remaining after taking his turn trying to slow Portland’s scorching hot power forward.
The Rockets, it seemed, had come to a precarious fork in the road. But Harden again came to the rescue, knocking down shots and parading his way to the free throw line to keep his club in front 58-56 come halftime. His numbers up to that point were positively Jordan-esque: 24 points, five assists, four steals and a 10-of-10 mark from the charity stripe. Chandler Parsons was Houston’s second leading scorer at that point with 14 points. Aldridge, meanwhile, led the Blazers with 21 points.
The second half began with Harden still absolutely locked in as he continued his attempt to rip the heart right out of Rip City. Playing with the uber efficient style that Rockets fans have grown accustomed to seeing from him over the course of the last two seasons, Harden probed and picked apart the Blazers’ D as Houston’s lead again ballooned. The 24-year-old reached the final frame with 32 points in hand while needing a measly 11 shots to reach that prolific total.
With the tension and intensity ramped up to borderline unbearable levels in the nip-and-tuck final frame, both teams took turns making bids to knock the other out for good. One massive sequence saw Dwight Howard make a remarkable run from the weak-side to stuff a Thomas Robinson layup attempt, leading to a coast-to-coast foray that Harden coolly converted at the other end. The Blazers responded by milking, of all people, Robin Lopez, as he scored six consecutive points to put Portland up four at the five-minute mark.
Still, Howard simply refused to allow the Rockets to go quietly into the night. In fact, for most of the fourth quarter he seemingly carried the entire city of Houston on those broad, bulbous shoulders of his. With the Blazers up one and less than two minutes left in the contest, Howard somehow corralled a loose ball that resulted in the wake of an errant missed jumper from Jeremy Lin. Emerging from a forest of arms and legs with the rock, Houston’s all-world big man laid the ball in while getting hammered. All told, Howard scored half of his 26 points in the final period.
Moments later, another offensive rebound had Houston less than a second away from forcing a Game 7. Following a wild scramble off a Houston miss, Chandler Parsons swooped in to snag the ball, laying it in to put the Rockets up two with just nine-tenths of a second remaining.
And then the ghost of Brandon Roy returned, haunting Houston at the worst possible moment. Mere feet away from where Roy had once broken the Rockets’ hearts back in 2008, Lillard cleanly caught the inbounds pass from Nic Batum, rose and sank a shot that produced sheer pandemonium.
The Blazers won 99-98. The Rockets’ season was officially over, flickering out in the most agonizing way imaginable.
"It's the worst feeling I've ever had in my life," Parsons said. "If we get a stop, this locker room is totally different and we're going home to play Game 7 and move on. Instead it's over and there are no words to describe the feeling.
HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE
On last play with Parsons covering Lillard:
“They matched up over there and he just took off running and got some separation on his first step. No picks, he just took off running and caught it and shot it. He came running out from the weak side and we didn’t execute very well on that one. I think that’s a play we had to play defense for 0.9 seconds. We said no threes and we were trying to make the guys go back into the two-point line and catch it. We had a foul to give if they did catch it but I figured at that point they’re going to catch and shoot anyway so it’s hard to use the foul. He made a hell of a shot.”
On mood in locker room
“Terrible. How do you think we would be?”
On Portland defending Harden in the second half:
“James had a hell of a game. They got up on him a little bit more, but he had 34 points for the game on 15 shots. He played really well. Dwight was really good down the stretch. It wasn’t what they did, we just got Dwight the ball more in the second half.”
On thoughts with 0.9 left:
“No threes. That’s what we talked about in the huddle. The only thing that could have killed us at that moment was a three. That’s what we thought about, taking away the three.”
On emotions through last play:
“You can’t relax. It’s the playoffs. You can’t relax. When you relax, that’s when things happen. I’ve been telling you guys the whole series, you’ve got to always be in attack mode. You can never get back on your heels. When you do, things like this happen. It’s a learning experience for a lot of these young guys on our team that each possession counts in the playoffs.”
Thoughts on losing series at buzzer:
“It hurts. When you put everything you’ve got on the floor and somebody hits you with a dagger like that, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
“It’s a tough loss, but it’s something we’ve got to learn from. Like I’ve said the whole series, we cant take any possessions off. We can’t relax. Every bucket counts. Portland came in and played with a lot of confidence. They hit some big shots. They played great defense. They ran their stuff. They were well coached. They won the series, so congratulate them. I’d love to see Damian and LaMarcus, now that we’re out, win it. I’m friends with both of them, so I’d be proud of them if they can take it.”
On looking forward:
“Well we’ve got a great nucleus of guys. Everybody has to come back better next season and see the mistakes we made this year as a team and try to learn from them so next year we won’t have situations like this.”
What did you tell Lillard after the game?
“I told him great series, I’m proud of him and go win the ‘chip.”
On what you take away:
“You’ve got to play with confidence. You can’t relax. Some of the guys on our team, including myself at times, we relaxed on the floor. Nothing is easy. I’ve been to the Finals, I’ve been to the Eastern Conference Finals, I’ve been to the top and it’s not easy getting there. You’ve got to make everything count. I think that’s a big lesson for us all. No matter who we play, no matter what happens in the regular season, you can’t take any team for granted. Portland came out and played from the first game to tonight, those guys played together. Just watching their mentality on the floor, it was good. It was a seasoned team. So there’s a lot of things we can learn from this series and hopefully come back next year and be a lot better.”
PORTLAND HEAD COACH TERRY STOTTS
“Before I want to talk about the game, I really want to just express how good the Houston Rockets are. It was a great series. Any game could have gone either way. Both teams really played hard. It was a great series and the Houston Rockets, they played a great series and so my hat is off to them. But it was a hell of a win obviously and I don’t know that it could have been any more dramatic.”
On last play:
“It was either LA or Damian coming up. You try to have two looks. To be honest, I didn’t think Damian would come that open. LA was probably the first look but Dame came wide open. So it was one of the two looks.”
“In those situations, it wasn’t about going for the win. Like I said, LA with 0.9, LA can get a catch and shoot or something can happen down there, but I just wanted to try to get a clean look at the basket.”
On Lillard’s game winner:
“He lives for those moments. It looked good when it left. It’s remarkable. It was a remarkable shot.”
Did you know game winner was going in?
“I mean, I got a pretty good look. Mo and Wes did a great job of trying to screen and I was able to break free and I got my feet squared up and it felt real good leaving my hands. Once I saw it on line, I said that’s got a chance. It went in, but it did feel good when it left my hands.”
Is that biggest shot of your life?
“That’s definitely the biggest shot of my life – so far.”
On thoughts after going down 2 with 0.9 left:
“I think I can speak for our entire team – when Chandler Parsons made that layup with 0.9 seconds, everybody was like man, we have to go back to Houston. I told LA the first I did after he made it was look to the other end at the clock to see how much time was left. I knew we would get a shot off. I didn’t know what the quality would be of the shot, but we got as good of a look as we was going to get and we executed the play that coach drew up in the timeout and here we are.”
On interaction with crowd after buzzer beater:
“Once the shot went in and I knew the series was over, the crowd was so into the game. I think our whole team really wanted to get it done for them, not only ourselves, our group in the locker room but for the crowd because they show up so consistently for us. They were with us. The whole series, they were with us 100 percent. I felt like they deserved to be rewarded. Us sticking out on the court and kind of rallying and chanting with the crowd for a while, I think that’s what Portland has been looking for for a long time as far as advancing past the first round, I’m just excited that I can be on the team with this group of guys and we were the group to get it done.”
“He’s been great all year. He’s made big shots for us all year. He’s definitely played older than his years. He came into this game locked in, wanted to win it. He came out playing great basketball for us. It came down to the last shot and he made the shot and after he made the shot, I didn’t let him go for about three minutes. After those three minutes was up, he got free. He’s big for us. He’s big for this franchise. He’s been great.
Thoughts on going to second round for first time in career:
“It feels good. It feels weird but it feels good. The people that’s been here with me, we’ve definitely had our moments where we felt like we should have made it and we’ve had teams that maybe should have done it in the past so it feels good to finally make that step.
Thoughts on series:
“It was a great series. We felt like we got better from it. They’re a really talented team. They’re good 1 through 5. We felt like they definitely helped us grow because we’re so young in the playoffs, but they definitely helped us grow and we feel like we should be better for the next round. We’re happy now but we’re not satisfied.”