Omer Asik made a jump shot in the 3rd quarter. Do you remember? It’s right there on the ESPN play-by-play: “9:26: Omer Asik Makes 18-Foot jump shot. 68-58.” I don’t remember what it looked like, but I remember what I did when it happened: I yelled and I threw my hands in the air and I rolled my eyes because it was a cosmic sign that this wasn’t going to be the Blazers’ night. I don’t believe in cosmic signs or momentum or destiny or anything, but Omer drilling an 18 footer out of nowhere, man, I just wanted to turn it off and watch Bob’s Burgers so I wouldn’t tear my own arm off.
Thankfully, I guess (I do wish I had seen this week’s Bob’s Burgers), I kept watching, and the Blazers dug and clawed and lucked their way to a win that was excruciating and exhausting. This series is a monster that is devouring children and animals and plants and Gods.
The Blazers played like hot shit in the first half. They’re usually an awesome rebounding team but they got outrebounded 27-17. They struggled to contain pick and rolls, which is not as unusual. The Rockets have gone to Asik in this series as a way of stemming Aldridge’s one-on-one production, but even with an offensive non-factor like that on the floor the Blazers were still having trouble containing shooters, especially Chandler Parsons, who had 19.
At some point in the third, James Harden put a pretty blatant sidearm shove into Wes Matthews, who exaggerated the contact to get a call and left him wide open. Harden must’ve been open for three seconds and no one went to cover him and he didn’t shoot, as if all parties involved were saying “So, this play is going to get blown dead, right?” But once that moment passed, Harden rose up and drilled a three. When everyone was running back on offense, Wes said something uncouth to the referees and got T’d up. A microcosm for a first half where nothing went the Blazers’ way.
A lot of the third was a back and forth exchange, the Blazers closing the gap here and there but never quite getting over the “tenish-point deficit” hump. With six minutes left in the quarter, Thomas Robinson entered for Robin Lopez and helped turn the tide in the Blazers’ favor. The Blazers were getting uncharacteristically torched on rebounds all night. Lopez isn’t necessarily a great rebounder on his own, but he is a tremendous box-out artist who creates a lot of rebounding opportunities for teammates, but the Rockets were totally unaffected by his work for the most part. Robinson, on the other hand, is NOT a box-out artist, at all. He is an isolation rebounder, if you will, and when he came in, he took control with his own mitts. He also got a nice block/probably-not-a-foul on Dwight. He grabbed three in six minutes and earned a +3 rating for his efforts. The Blazers managed to have a pretty excellent rebounding effort as a whole for the rest of the game; after that crappy start they were only outrebounded 49-44 in total.
At the end of the third, Lillard made a tremendous move to the corner, received a pass and drilled a BEAUTIFUL fading three at the buzzer. If I believed in momentum, I would say something like, “Boy that really gave the Blazers momentum.” But I don’t, so I didn’t say that, but I also wasn’t disappointed when they immediately surrendered ground in the third. Contain your emotions, people!
At some point during this game, I think the fourth, but maybe as early as the second, the Blazer crowd turn on the refs like savages. “BULLSHIT” they cried. “WE WILL DEVOUR YOU” yelled one woman with a sleeping baby in her hands. “WAR ON REF NATION!” was the chant from all corners. If the Blazers hadn’t won, it could have gotten very ugly. The Black Hand assassinating Ed Malloy ugly.
The fourth was totally insane. The Blazers tied the game at 94 with 4:31 remaining on a very onions-y jumper from Damian and took the first lead since super-early in the first on a Batum three with 4:31. They actually overcame the series’ largest deficit thus far, which is pretty crazy because the series’ largest deficit was, like, 11. The teams traded points for a while and the Blazers managed a two point lead with 1:30 or so remaining. They had a spaced out possession: there was some penetration that got kicked out and all the perimeter players passed around the three point line, hunting for an open shot, which the Rockets didn’t concede. This didn’t create a shot, but every Rocket besides Dwight Howard was guarding the perimeter and so when Batum got the ball on the right wing, he exploited the space and attacked Dwight at the rim. Dwight absolutely snuffed the life out of the attempt.
The Rockets’ two best players, James Harden and Dwight Howard, polarize people. Actually, that’s not true. Nearly all people do not like them very much. I am sure that Rockets fans aren’t even quite on their side right now, being down in a series to a team they whooped in the regular season. Harden hits on everyone’s basketball funny-bones: he shoots into contact and openly seeks fouls and doesn’t turn in even a cursory defensive effort. Hating James Harden is an extension of hating the refs; he just doesn’t beat people without impartial observers feeling like their team got hosed.
The animosity towards Howard is different. Howard is a weird dude who makes childish jokes, kind of hosed the team who drafted him and played like shit and annoyed Kobe when he got traded to the Lakers (A plus in my book!). But God almighty he is good at basically everything that people don’t notice. Look at the screens he sets: that massive upper body isn’t a preening excess, it’s a slab of granite that crushes wing defenders. He has awesome hands for catch and is awesome at rebounding. Does he get away with pushes and elbows? Sure! But concealing dirty play is a skill like any other skill! He is very good at basketball.
But God, there is one thing he isn’t very good at and it’s playing right into the Blazers’ hands. It’s not foul shots: his 50/50 coin flip foul shot is coming up heads most of the time in this series and even when it doesn’t, 1 or so points per possession is nothing to sneeze at. No, Howard’s struggle is post-ups. He is making it work a little; in Game 2, for instance, he blitzkreiged Lopez in the beginning, so much that Howard got tired and needed to take a blow early in the first. But tonight, when Lopez fouled out, the Rockets force-fed Dwight in the matchup on Aldridge, and they came up short while Portland was drilling on the other end.
The Blazers have competed in every game of this series because they are good. Recency bias (rhey didn’t actually dramatically outperform their point differential by year’s end) and a matchup that looked pretty grim made them look like fresh meat at the beginning, but that is clearly not the case. They have won the games because of A. Luck and B. the Rockets’ charitable strategy of “feeding the big man.” The Blazers created turnovers and forced awkward jump hooks from Howard in the post. But when the Rockets set Howard up to absorb Harden’s defender? Well: “2:03: Dwight Howard Makes Dunk (James Harden Assists)” Be thankful whenever Shaq mouths off about how many points Dwight needs and how he needs to get them: the demands that he play like an archaic center are playing right into the Blazers’ hands.
Anyway, near the end of regulation Mo WIlliams drilled a go-ahead three on an insane broken play that involved a missed shot, a rebound, a missed five foot shot, a Lin rebound and a hustlin-ass play by Damian Lillard. When Mo is gone, I hope I remember him this way, canning clutch playoff shots and game sealing free throws and not for the feeling of palpable irritation I felt every time he came off a solid pick and wandered around until another defender showed up, unable or unwilling or something to attack to basket or find a shooter. Hey, at least he isn’t Ronnie Price!
Except for the small pile of missed free throws and that really very God-awfully irritating foul on Troy Goddamn Daniels, enemy to Blazerkind for once and forever — write his name on stuffed animals and burn them in front of children so they may know who the real enemy is — the overtime period went very well. Chandler Parsons, in a fit of rage after his crummy second half and the revelation that not only was he not the best small forward in the series, he wasn’t even the most handsome, gave Aldridge a pretty rough flagrant foul at the beginning of the quarter. With a few seconds left, the Blazers up three, Wes went for the sort of steal that one goes for when you don’t really care about fouling, came up with the ball, passed it to Aldridge, who passed it to Lillard, who threw down a deliciously unsportsmanlike dunk and the game was over.
After the game, TNT’s sideline reporter asked Aldridge about the effort the teams had given that night. By accident or by purpose, we will never know for sure, he quoted a power forward and philosopher from Blazers history: “Both Teams Played Hard.” A fitting topper to the night his team became the first Blazers team to go up 3-1 in a series since 2000.