April 22, 2009
Prior to the game, I was shocked at how demoralized Blazer fans were. For example, at work there were four co-holders of season tickets. Two of them assumed the series was over, to the point where one of them actually bet five bucks the Blazers would lose game two against the Rockets.
All season I have had a very solid read on this team, from my preseason prediction of 53 wins down to how they would fare in each month. As a result, they sometimes turn to me for my take on the game.
Blinded by my man-crush on LaMarcus Aldridge, I said, "L.A. will come out and have a huge game, Roy will have a better game, and the Blazers will win this one. It will probably be pretty close, but they will tie the series."
I got to the game and was talking with the guy who convinced me to get season tickets of my own, a good friend and poker buddy. He also thought the series was basically over. I told him the same thing, but he remained discouraged, even going so far as to say, "I don't even really want to go to a game five if they are down 3-1."
Nor was he alone in his sentiment. The buzz in the crowd was very similar. That game one crushing had the fans completely demoralized.
About five minutes into the game I turned to my wife and said, "They were right. Portland
is going to lose."
She looked at the scoreboard which showed the Blazers tied at 15. "Why would you say that?"
I pointed out that home teams which get humiliated in the first game typically come out super energized, build a nice lead, and then end up needing to hold on in the end. Visiting teams typically try to withstand the opening blitz without losing contact and then take over the game. Yet Houston not only withstood the blitz, they had led most of the way.
Furthermore, I had expected Aldridge to come out strong, looking for his shot, and take over the game. Instead, he was playing tentative, not taking the shots he normally took, and was a complete non-factor on offense.
Still, this team was so much fun to watch all year that we settled back to enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was!
Somehow, some way the Blazers overcame every obstacle. They overcame the demoralization from game one. They overcame being outnumbered eight to six on the floor. They overcame having scored 100 pints or more just once in a jaw-dropping 29 attempts against the Rockets. They overcame Ron Artest hitting some ridiculous, ridiculous shots.
Artest, by the way, deserves a lot of credit. He has rightly taken a lot of grief over the years for some of his actions, both on and off the court. But he has also done some things people ignore or do not know about. For example, during the down time between games one and two, he sought out and performed some charity work. This was not well publicized.
He has also toughened up Houston and given them an edge that they did not have in prior years. More importantly, he saw this game was up for grabs and he did everything he could to grab it.
Nicolas Batum is far and away the Blazers' best wing defender. He did a really great job on Artest. Several times he forced Artest into falling away to the left fade-away jumpers at or even beyond the three-point line.
And Artest hit them. Sick, sick shots. He was destroying the Blazers. Roy was trying to match him but Portland needed someone to give Roy some help. As the early years of Michael Jordan showed, no player, no matter how good, can single-handedly win a playoff series. It takes a team.
Sometimes two players can. At the eight minute mark of the second quarter, we finally saw the Aldridge I expected early in the game. He hit a couple of post moves which opened the lane for Roy to score five quick points. Then he went back on the block and scored on four consecutive possessions.
That forced the Rockets to double and triple team him, to focus their defense on him which then allowed Roy to go back to work. Together they had 36 of Portland's 53 first half points. Aldridge shot 8 for 10 in the first half. This was the guy I had expected to see.
Instead of passing the ball off and letting Luis Scola control him, he was imposing his will on Scola, on Yao Ming, on anyone who came near him. With the Rockets forced to divide their attention, Roy was carving them up inside.
The Rockets were also relying on two guys. In the first quarter it was Artest with 15 points. In the second quarter it was...well..unexpected. Yao Ming? I would believe that. Aaron Brooks? Sure, we have seen what he can do. But it was Von Wafer scoring 12 points of his own that kept Houston in the game. He simply could not be stopped.
At halftime several things were obvious. First off, the Blazers were at a severe disadvantage. This was one of the worst officiated games I have seen in a long time. As in game one, the Blazers were getting into the paint with regularity. The Rockets were staying on the perimeter more except for Wafer. Yet the Rockets had a marked advantage at the line.
Unlike game one, this was not because they were playing solid defense. This was blown call after blown call. The real reason the calls were blown was because it was not being called the same way for both teams. Artest, Shane Battier, Scola, and Ming were allowed to knock people down without being called for fouls whereas the Blazers were being called for a lot of questionable calls. A couple of second half examples demonstrate it pretty well.
Scola ran off a screen on the left block. Aldrdige was getting by Ming, so Ming hip-checked him with a screen that moved about three feet. This hip check threw Aldridge into Scola, knocking Scola to the floor. We started celebrating that Ming would be picking up his fifth foul. Instead, it was called on Aldridge. Now, sure, he DID foul Scola...because he was fouled by Ming. This was Aldridge's fifth foul and would play a big role in the game's outcome.
Another example came when Greg Oden was under the basket on the defensive end. Brooks drove to the basket and Oden, seeing he could not stop him, stood there with his arms raised just as Ming had done at the other end. Moments later, Brooks was at the line and Oden had fouled out. Had they made that call against Ming, he would have fouled out in the first five minutes.
If the games are officiated this way in Houston, look for two blow-outs because Portland cannot continue to compete five on eight. They were only able to in this game because of Roy and Aldridge. IN the second half, it was primarily Roy.
He scored 11 of the first 13 points in the second half, keeping them in the game until the rest of the team was finally ready to join him. The Rockets were scoring with regularity and only Roy kept this game from turning into a blow-out.
All game long it was Roy who kept the Blazers in contact when the rest of the team struggled except for the mid to late second quarter when Aldridge took over. Roy scored from inside. He scored from mid-range. He scored from outside.
At one point late in the fourth quarter, the Blazers were clinging to a tenuous 93-90 lead. Roy was given the ball at the top of the key with very little time left on the shot clock. Defending him one-on-one was Artest, a guy who is certainly one of the better wing defenders in the league.
In fact, it was the ability of Artest and Battier to defend that had many Blazer fans convinced the Blazers would be unable to pull off a win in this game. And now, in a key moment, here was the match-up Blazer fans feared. There was a real feeling this possession could decide the game. And here was Artest via Roy with all the advantage to Artest: Little time to work, no screens to free Roy, and officials who were unlikely to call a foul. Yeah, I know...he did shoot 12 free throws in the game. He should have had 20+.
Be that as it may, Roy did what All-Stars are supposed to do in these situations, even when matched up with top defenders. He found a way to score. He ball faked, got Artest moving and hit a contested three to give the Blazers a six-point cushion.
This game was about several things. First, it was Aldridge stepping up and having a big game. He did that. It was about Roy dominating, which he did with 42 points while adding seven rebounds and coming up with a key late block.
And it was about Joel Przybilla, Greg Oden, Aldridge, and everyone else focusing on not letting Ming dominate as he did in game one.
They fronted, they double-teamed, they switched up on him, they came at him from a variety of angles, and just generally kept him from scoring. Certainly, that opened things up for other Rockets to score as evidenced by six Rockets scoring at least 10 points apiece. However, instead of shooting 60 percent plus when the game mattered, in this one they shot 50 percent. Still too high, but much more manageable.
By the time Roy hit a free throw with five seconds left to give Portland a 105-100 lead, it was apparent that Portland had learned a lot of lessons from the first game. They grew up fast.
They never got down on themselves, even when Houston took a five-point lead early in the second. Roy hit all the right notes to keep the Blazers in the game. Przybilla provided some veteran leadership and Nate McMillan did a fantastic job of coaching to get their heads back in the game.
Even when normally reliable Steve Blake started to melt down, missing open shots and making uncharacteristic turnovers that led to dunks for the Rockets, the Blazers refused to cave in. They fought and battled their way.
Nor was it just Roy and Aldridge. Travis Outlaw showed us flashes of his Super-Trout persona, Greg Oden had a key follow-dunk, Rudy Fernandez had a crowd-inspiring steal and dunk, and the Blazers showed that yes, Roy is far and away their best player, but they are still first and foremost a team.
Roy could not win this game alone and the Blazers showed why they have been so good all year, turning in a team performance that resulted in overcoming an incredible final minute by Aaron Brooks to hold on for a 107-103 victory.
Brooks is way more talented than advertised. His first desperation three was awesome. His ankle went about seventeen different directions as he tried to hold back from crossing the line, he went up for a desperation three that was well-contested and somehow found the bottom of the net. As much as I hate any former Duck, that shot was simply spectacular.
In the end, it was everything we had expected from the first playoff game. The crowd was raucous and into it, even when the Blazers got down by a few points. They recognized the greatness they were seeing from both Roy and Aldridge, recognized the calls but did not get so caught up in hating on the referees that they forgot to enjoy the game, and in large part controlled the methods of cheering.
What I mean is instead of chants starting with the announcer or Blazer mascot, they started organically with the crowd. "Lets go Blazers" was probably the most popular one, though the ubiquitous "MVP" with Roy at the line and the "These refs suck" made a brief return when Oden fouled out. The point is, these chants did not start from electronic admonitions, but from the fans getting juiced and rolling with it.
It remains to be seen if the Blazers have grown up enough to do what they need to do, which is go into Houston and reclaim home court. Make no mistake, the Rockets did exactly what they needed to do in Portland, which was get a split. Now, the onus is on the Blazers to prove they deserved the higher seed by winning in Houston, which is no easy proposition.
They have only won once in the new Rocket arena and that was two years ago. It is tougher to win in the Playoffs, but the Blazers have the talent to do it. Do they have the mental toughness? Perhaps I am blinded by my unapologetic love of the Blazers, but I think they do and will win one of the two.
Then again, Houston is an excellent team that has the home court advantage. Games three and four should be a real war. Let's go along and enjoy the ride.