We knew this series was going to be good, but wow. Game 1 between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers was an overtime classic, replete with roller-coaster runs throughout and a tightly-contested ending decided by just two points.
The headliners ended up writing all the headlines, perhaps foreshadowing what's to come in a series that seems destined to go six or seven games.
LaMarcus Aldridge was as good as he's ever been and better than any of the Trail Blazers have been in the playoffs.
In a postseason where most of the big-man talk has focused on Blake Griffin, Aldridge set himself apart with a dynamic performance as a scorer and rebounder alike. As he's oft to do, the 28-year-old scored prolifically—especially right at the rim, seemingly ignoring Dwight Howard's vaunted defensive presence.
Aldridge demonstrated a capacity to take the series over, especially during moments where the tempo slows down and half-court execution becomes key.
He poses significant matchup problems for the Rockets, pulling bigs like Dwight Howard and Omer Asik away from the basket or towering over Terrence Jones in size. Houston will have to re-think its approach, perhaps sending multiple looks and increased help defense at the big man.
It wasn't as though Aldridge was the only star who came ready to play. Teammate Damian Lillard was huge down the stretch, finishing with 31 points, nine boards and five assists. He hit two key three-pointers in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, proving that he was up to the task in his very first postseason game.
Perhaps most importantly, Lillard kept his composure. He got off to a slow start but responded when it mattered, showing the kind of even-keeled temperament that's defined his young career.
Though outshone on this particular night, Houston's stars were brilliant in their own right.
Dwight Howard did his part. He fouled out in overtime with 27 points and 15 rebounds. Despite missing eight free throws, Howard actually made six straight down the stretch—defying conventional wisdom when he needed to most.
But his struggles at the line became problematic in the fourth. Down 10 points, head coach Terry Stotts started sending him to the stripe intentionally to get back in the game.
Despite coming up empty on some crunch-time shots, James Harden was equally productive. He got off to a slow start but finished with 27 points. If there was any complaint about Harden's performance, it was efficiency, as he made just eight of his 28 field-goal attempts. He'll need to do better than that for Houston to overcome Portland's multifaceted attack.
The Rockets clearly don't have a ton of adjustments to make before Game 2. While they must find ways to better contain Aldridge, there's little doubt that doing so will come at a price. Portland has a number of good shooters, so head coach Kevin McHale can't afford to devote the entirety of his defensive attention to stopping one man.
Otherwise, though, Houston was clearly in this game. It spent much of it ahead.
If there's any big take-away, it's that there will be an extremely thin margin for error in this series. Much as it will at times be dictated by high-octane attacks on both sides, half-court execution and defense during key possessions will still be decisive.
So will doing the little things.
After all, it was an offensive rebound that sent the game to overtime—something that just shouldn't happen against a team with Howard patrolling the paint. It was Howard's inability to make free throws that helped turn the game around in the fourth quarter.
It was details. Houston's stars will shine just as brightly as Portland's when all is said and done. Harden will have a huge game at some point. Chandler Parsons (24 points in Game 1) will continue to spearhead a brilliant supporting cast. Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin will capably man the point-guard spot.
But can Houston's big names do the little things? The things that cracked open a window of opportunity for Portland to sneak back into this game?
Doing some big things wouldn't hurt the Rockets, either. Harden needs to have a night like Aldridge had in Game 1, and he's perfectly capable of doing just that. We know the Rockets score the ball as well as any team, and Harden had a lot to do with that all season, averaging 25.4 points during the regular season.
The 24-year-old is a game-changer. He gets to the free-throw line over nine times a game, driving and settling for perimeter shots in seemingly equal proportion. Should Harden find more of a rhythm, he could put the Trail Blazers on their heels.
For all the talk about Portland's stars, the supporting cast will remain instrumental in containing Houston's top scorers. Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum are exceptional perimeter defenders, and keeping a hand in the faces of Harden and Parsons will continue to be their first priorities.
Likewise, Robin Lopez's big body is the single most important thing standing between Howard and the basket. Though his scoring ability is limited, Lopez is a strong defender and rebounder. He gives the Trail Blazers at least a semblance of an answer to Houston's advantage near the basket.
If Portland's bench answers the bell, life for the Rockets will be even more difficult. Neither bench was especially productive Sunday night, but the Trail Blazers' scored just seven points. On the one hand, that's a testament to just how good Aldridge and Lillard were. On the other, though, it means Portland could be in trouble if their stars don't produce.
Amidst the adjustments and matchups, there's a simple truth that will define this series. The Rockets can't afford to let Aldridge and Lillard combine for 77 points—or anything close to it. That's a recipe for bigger disasters to come.
Beverley did his best to harass Lillard all night, but Houston may be forced to chase him off the three-point line by any means necessary. Good as Portland's "others" may be, it's their two-man game that's pivotal. Without that inside-outside attack, the Trail Blazers become a mortal opponent.
With it, they're capable of historic performances.
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